Tuesday, January 14, 2014

How NSA overreach is worse than terrorism

Ever since the Edward Snowden leaks started it has become more and more obvious that the NSA and their Five Eyes partners (the spooks in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) have been making a concerted effort to monitor and control the entire Internet.

They've engaged in vast data stealing exercises designed to sweep up and store the private communications data of virtually everyone; the NSA have employed a team of some 850,000 NSA staff and private security contractors to trawl this ocean of stolen data for whatever they can find;
they've damaged international relations by snooping on dozens of heads of state; they've used their snooping powers to spy on companies like the Brazilian oil company Petrobras (surely motivated by industrial espionage, rather than their stated justification of "fighting terrorism"); they've undermined encryption technology - endangering the security of financial transactions; and they've compelled countless US based technology companies to violate the privacy of their own customers and to build backdoors into their products to enable NSA snooping.

In order to compress what they've been doing into a single paragraph, I've obviously left out a lot of the nefarious activities orchestrated by the NSA and carried out by their mercenary army of hundreds of thousands of private sector spooks and their Five Eyes collaborators. But even so, the above paragraph is more than enough to demonstrate that the security services in the US, and the other Five Eyes collaborator states, are running dangerously out of control.

The fact that the NSA and their Five Eyes collaborators feel entitled to trawl the Internet for whatever they can find, which is then stored in vast data centres and subjected to algorithmic analysis without the need for any kind of judicial warrant, demonstrates that something fundamental has changed in the relationship between the state and the citizen. Due process has been abandoned, and as far as the security services are concerned, we are all assumed to be guilty. They don't have to be able to show probable cause, they don't have to apply for a warrant from a judge, they just steal our data and use it as they see fit, with no democratic oversight at all over many of their data stealing operations.

The fact that the US state employs a staggering 850,000 NSA staff and private sector contractors to trawl this ocean of stolen data should be alarming to anyone with the brains to think through the logical implications of such a vast
mercenary army. You would have to be a hopeless idealist to imagine that there are no "bad apples" at all amongst all these hundreds of thousands. If we assume that just 4% of them (one in every 25) are the kind of people that would use their access to enormous surveillance powers to do things like steal commercially confidential information to order, blackmail people, cyber stalk people, wage petty vendettas against old adversaries ... that would mean a rogue army of some 34,000 thieves, stalkers and blackmailers with access to the NSA's vast caches of stolen data and their extraordinary surveillance capabilities.

The fact that the NSA have been using their powers to engage in industrial espionage against various countries such as Germany, Russia, China and Brazil illustrates that "the few bad apples" narrative, although useful from an illustrative point of view, isn't actually the main concern. The main concern is that the NSA itself is corrupt to the core. Instead of using their powers to maintain the rule of law and to "fight terrorism" they're actually intent on using their unprecedented espionage capabilities in order to undermine global competition for the benefit of US based corporations.

One of the most worrying revelations is that the spy agencies have deliberately compromised the encryption technology used to keep our financial transactions safe, and that they have awarded themselves the power to hack into bank accounts anywhere in the world and simply erase money out of existence, or invent fictional transactions. They have undermined the integrity of the financial system in order to build themselves snooping capabilities that would have blown the minds of the East German Stasi or the Soviet KGB.

Perhaps the most damning element of all (from an American perspective) is the extraordinary amount of damage the NSA have done to the reputation of US technology companies, by compelling them to breech the privacy of their own customers and infecting their products with spyware. This trashing of the reputation of countless US based technology companies comes with an enormous price tag. It has been estimated that the reputational damage inflicted on US technology companies by their own government could amount to $180 billion, as millions of customers are turned off the idea of investing in buggy, insecure and spyware laden products from US companies.

If you add the estimated $180 billion in reputational damage to American companies to the staggering cost of running the NSA and employing an army of 850,000 spooks, the cost of this folly is absolutely enormous.

One of the worst things about having trashed the reputation of their own technology sector, is the fact that the technology sector is one of the few parts of the US economy that is healthy and productive. T
he US financial sector is a gigantic, virtually unregulated and desperately unstable hotbed of corruption and reckless gambling and US manufacturing power has been in decline since the neoliberals came to power in the 1980s and allowed short-term profiteers to asset strip US productivity. The US economy is in decline, but that decline has been offset by a remarkable period of exponential growth in the US technology sector. Any American with a reasonably comprehensive view of how their economy is structured must be absolutely aghast at the damage inflicted on the technology sector by the power crazed spooks that considered their mission to infect everything they could with spyware as far more important than the long term success of the US technology sector.

Not only does it look like the NSA's overreach is going to cost the US economy vastly more than any terrorist attack ever has, it also looks set to crush US ambition of controlling the Internet, as ever more people realise that the Americans can no longer be trusted to control the fundamental infrastructure of the Internet. Any non-US corporation with the slightest regard for data security is going to move away from reliance upon the US technology sector as soon as possible, and any nation that values its own industries is surely going to approve of efforts to wrest control of the Internet away from the US.

The sheer scale of NSA data theft is driving the development of new highly encrypted technology. It is only a matter of time before spook proof browsers and encrypted communications become commonplace, because there is an undeniable market demand for such things. The most terrible thing from a US perspective is that US technology companies will be completely cut off from entry into this new market because everyone is now aware of how the US intelligence agencies have forced US technology companies to infect their own products with spyware and invade the privacy of their own customers. Nobody is ever going to believe US technology companies when they give assurances about privacy, meaning that the next wave of secure communications technology is going to arise outside the US.

The NSA have been using their surveillance powers to engage in industrial espionage in order to benefit US corporations. This is a clear demonstration that they see it as their mission to help US corporations by fair means or foul. Given that this is one of their core objectives, the fact that they have inflicted such an extraordinary amount of damage on the most vibrant sector of the US economy must go down as one of the most spectacular own goals in history. They built a vast data stealing operation in order to help US corporations, but in doing so inflicted more damage on the US economy than Osama Bin Laden could ever have dreamed of.

The NSA have used their scaremongering narratives about the threat of terrorism to justify the slaughter of their own golden goose, yet they would have us believe that they are not responsible. They would have everyone believe that Edward Snowden is the guilty party; that he alone is responsible for the damage to the US technology sector. But their case is a ludicrous one. There is clearly something dreadfully wrong with the way things are set up if just one man (out of some 850,000 spooks) can single handedly wipe an estimated $180 billion off the value of the US technology sector simply by telling the truth.

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What is ... a Justification Narrative?
The Tory "War on Justice"
Secret Courts and the very Illiberal Democrats
David Cameron's witch hunt against truth and openness                         
The forgotten victims of 9/11
What is... Neoliberalism?
The "golden hammer" of neoliberalism

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