The Militarised “Big-Data” Threat to Non-Violent Civil Action

The stories just keep coming. The NSA and the big corporations have been sweeping up massive amounts of data on all Americans. And of course, most others in the world who are “connected” in some way are being spied upon too. We cannot fail to notice that widespread surveillance has become routine practice in diverse institutions. Less widely discussed are the various means by which public and corporate institutions are collecting large quantities of increasingly detailed information on everyone. “Big Data” is all the buzz where institutional efforts are made to manage everyone’s behavior to control politics and increase profits.

Pervasive police violence upon the most vulnerable populations has become a widely discussed public problem since unarmed black teen Michael Brown’s murder-by-cop. Many instances of excessive or entirely gratuitous “use of force” are now posted on social media every day. The growing split between dominant institutions – whether corporate, government, or militarized police – and the general population, is palpable.

Local law enforcement agencies continue to move toward full militarized weaponry and the “warrior cop” mentality as they more closely align with the DEA, ICE, NSA, the military, et al. Police departments are increasingly populated by violence prone individuals largely incapable of and uninterested in “keeping the peace.” Any civil objection to an institutional injustice is treated like and defined as ‘potentially’ terrorism related. To defend civil liberties is becoming an activity dangerously close to being considered ‘subversive.’ We are fast moving toward becoming a much more closed society, characterized by widespread violent repression of dissent.

Climate chaos is already upon us, yet it is treated in politics as if it were just another issue to be considered later because we don’t really know everything about it yet – no rush. The ever-expanding “terrorism” meme excuses every imaginable abuse of civil liberty and personal information. Little in the way of constitutional rights remains protected from the secret machinations of the “deep state” of “Democracy, Inc.”

The neoliberal economic and “third way” political ideologies both assert endless economic growth as the solution to the catastrophic conditions unbridled growth has created. Despite the failure of that growth to contribute to the pursuit of human happiness, it is touted as both good and inevitable. More and more institutional resources are poured into “big data” collection for use in managing the pseudo-democracy of corporate controlled politics and anti-democratic voter suppression.

In short, it’s all going in the wrong direction. Environmental progress is advertised as carbon emissions continue to grow. A massive turnaround is necessary in the very short term. Yet, corporate and governmental power – whether gestures of environmental concern are made or not – continue on the path of financialized economic growth and extractive capitalism. The necessity to take immediate collective action to slow the accelerating mass extinction is politically ignored. The power elites are not about take the responsibility to initiate the social mobilization necessary to begin the Great Transformation from the doomed carbon economy to an economy that will not destroy the whole earth system.

Only widespread civil collective action will get the attention of the power elites, which continue their exploitative rampage across the planet. They seem hell-bent on continuing on the path toward species extinction beyond the point where mitigation of climate disruption and its catastrophic consequences is no longer possible. The possibility to mount a massive popular uprising demanding the complex techno-economic and social transformation necessary seems unlikely. So, where do we go from here?

Increasingly overt and not entirely polite collective actions to draw attention to the immediacy of the crisis are necessary. But that presents a dilemma. The institutional forces of the status quo are increasingly turning to militarized violence in response to any interference with their exercise of power. There is no question as to where the physical power resides. The people have only one form of power: their numbers. Despite the fact that most people know that something is very wrong, it is extremely difficult for most folks to get the information needed to realize how critical the situation is. Knowledge is power.

Yet, numerous situations of past social transformations and/or revolutions – not merely one group overthrowing another and taking power, but actual rapid structural change – have demonstrated the unstoppable power of large numbers of people united and acting peacefully. The only viable counter to institutional violence is massive non-violent civil disobedience. Of course, the situation today is different than in colonial India or Poland under Soviet domination, or South African apartheid, or various other historical cases. But in nearly every case where the population mobilized for peaceful change, it succeeded. Still, every situation is different and calls for particular tactics and strategies. So, we must find our own way.

Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar, and Sometimes a Spy is Just a Citizen

The media response to the revelations of NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden has been, well, interesting.  At first, he was either vilified as a ‘traitor’ or as a fake or incompetent fool.  Then, as more embarrassing information on the unconstitutional surveillance of Americans was made public, and James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, was revealed to have directly lied to Congress about the extent of NSA spying on citizens – and was not fired – some called Snowden a hero while others still insisted that he had caused (always-unspecified) “major damage” to national security.

Having viewed or listened to every interview with Snowden I have been able to locate, I was somewhat surprised at what was, for a ‘techie,’ such articulate elucidation of the political and constitutional issues involved in the mass surveillance practices he has revealed.  Yet, his employment history reported in the media reveals a pattern similar to many whistle blowers – a conversion from initial idealism to informed outrage.  His attempt to complete Special Forces training to fight in Iraq, cut short by broken legs, had ended his idealistic military aspirations.

Then, applying his deep computing skills working for the CIA and the NSA, and subsequently for Booze-Allen, a major NSA contractor, he had access to the highest levels of secret NSA operations, because as a network system administrator, he had to in order to maintain information system operations.  Now it appears that he may have also obtained some passwords that expanded his access.

With access comes knowledge.  That is where his patriotism apparently clashed with his growing awareness of the unconstitutionality of operations NSA was conducting without serious congressional oversight.  His idealism about his government was shattered by his knowledge of what it was doing in the name of ‘national security’ and ‘democracy.’  Now, some conspiracy theorists claim that he was somehow duped into revealing information that was planted for him to find.  Why?  I have no idea.  The claim that some lowly ‘insignificant’ employee could have access to such super-secret information is seen by some folks as impossible, unless some conspiracy was afoot to manipulate him… Well…

Why Edward Snowden is real – it’s easy.  Some clues had emerged from my past experience as a low-level member of the military with a Top Secret clearance and also from having worked with highly technically skilled people who contracted with the NSA, as well as with a semi-retired CIA operator/assassin. I was at first shocked, then bemused at the level of INsecurity of information involved in a number of “national security” operations from detailed data on missile sites to extremely sensitive software development for the NSA.  In the late 1980s I also learned of boots-on-the-ground absurdities in Reagan’s War on Central America, from my friend the semi-retired CIA assassin.

I eventually understood that it is quite common for “lower participants” in large organizations, who have special skills, to be given far more access to “sensitive” information than most people would expect.  The reason for this is simple: those in authority need those with technical skills to carry out the operations needed in a complex system — be they super technical or super dangerous.  Who is more capable of drilling down into the bowels of a giant complex network and “administer” its many information processing and communications functions, including security, than the proverbial young geek who learned as a child the deepest computational processes and the many ways to “hack” a system [in the sense of working one’s way around in it and seeing whatever is there] and who by young adulthood has skills that his “superiors” will never understand?

People like Edward Snowden are hired for their performance in areas and at high technical levels where very few can in fact perform effectively.  This exemplifies what sociologists call “the power of lower participants.”  There are other related powers too, such as that of the lowly administrative assistant or secretary who, by virtue of her/his position knows all the boss’s dirty secrets as well as the politics of outwardly routine actions.  It is pretty clear that Edward Snowden is one of those ‘geeks’ who can get those deep technical tasks done — or he would not have been hired by CIA, NSA, or their contractors more than once.

Then at 29, he recognized some of the political consequence of the systems he maintained, especially for the Constitution he believed he was obligated to faithfully defend.  So, having reflected on the role of secrecy and surveillance in transforming a democracy into a totalitarian state with a democratic façade, he rebelled against participating in that corrupt process and risked his life – just as he might have as a Special Forces operator – in defense of the constitution he believes in.  Edward Snowden, it would appear, is still an idealistic citizen.

Citizenship knows no rank.  And rank does not necessarily correlate with intelligence or even military or business skills.  How do you think all those generals and admirals got to the top of the security/surveillance establishment?  Conformity, group-think, bureaucratic maneuvering, etc., are entirely different skills than creative analysis, whether of information systems software and hardware or of organizational situations or technical or tactical operations.  They are very different from critical thinking – the former are the skills it takes to rise to the rank of general.

Critical thinking, in contrast, leads to understanding.  That is why William Boyd, known as the greatest fighter pilot who ever lived, and the man who changed air combat and Marine maneuvering strategy forever, despite his huge accomplishments never made the rank of general – he frequently bucked a corrupt military-contractor system to achieve valued goals.  Boyd’s work was anything but superficial, nor do I suspect was Snowden’s, both of whom had special skills and seriously took creative risks for what they believed was right.  In an era of extreme cynicism, it is hard for many to imagine that a lowly systems analyst would risk his life to take an action based on an idealistic belief in his responsibility as a citizen, yet there you have it.