Friday, 14 June 2013

Through A PRISM Darkly

Geek Chic: NCIS-LA's winsome techies 'Eric' and 'Nell' are so busy capturing the top-rating show's viewers' hearts that their constant breaching of citizens' civil rights and privacy passes, if not unnoticed, then, at the very least, unreproved. These, after all, are the people who stand between us and the 'evil-doers'. Against such powerful inoculations of popular culture, CIA whistle-blower, Edward Snowden's, revelations about the PRISM surveillance system are unlikely to spark outrage from more than the usual civil liberties suspects.
 
EDWARD SNOWDEN knows his geopolitics. Where better to seek refuge than in China – the nation most likely to shatter the five fingers of the Anglo-Saxon fist? For the moment, however, the former CIA technician and whistle-blower must be hoping that Hong Kong can hide him from the Anglo-Saxons’ five-eyed “PRISM”.
 
No easy task – as Mr Snowden himself admits: “I could be rendered by the CIA, I could have people come after me, or any of their third party partners – they work closely with a number of other nations … You can’t come forward against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk. Because they’re such powerful adversaries that no one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you – they’ll get you in time.”
 
All of which makes The Bourne Identity read more like a handbook than a thriller. And why Nicky Hager, the man to whom so many of New Zealand’s whistle-blowers have taken their secrets, describes Mr Snowden as “a brave man”.
 
But, does any of it matter? Will the world even be surprised – let alone shocked – at the extraordinary reach of the US National Security Agency’s panoptic surveillance app – PRISM? Isn’t it possible that the citizens of the Anglo-Saxon powers: the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; far from applauding Mr Snowden’s courage, will condemn him for choosing not to stand with us – but with the terrorists?
 
It is, after all, the Anglo-Saxon nations which provide the biggest audiences for television series like 24 and NCIS. The heroes of these top-rating shows (both of which grew out of post-9/11 collaboration between Hollywood and the US national security agencies) are presented to us as the exemplars of courage and decency.
 
Whether it be 24’s Jack Bauer or NCIS’s Special Agent Jethro Gibbs, the message delivered to Anglo-Saxon viewers around the world is simple and compelling: “The US Government has got our back. These are the good guys who stand between us and the evil-doers.”
 
In every episode we witness these “good guys” – or their geeky side-kicks – routinely hacking into people’s computer hard-drives and tapping into their phone conversations/records. Indeed, these techno-savvy youngsters seem to inhabit a global panopticon from which nothing and no one can hide. Every CCTV camera is at their disposal and every GPS micro-chip ready to turn state’s evidence.
 
The simple cry of “Federal Agents!” grants these heroes warrantless entry to anybody’s property. When outraged suspects demand their rights, our good guys exchange knowing glances and ask them if they’ve read the Patriot Act. And, for those who refuse to co-operate there is always the failsafe threat of a one-way ticket to sunny Guantanamo Bay.
 
Fifty years ago, any agency wielding such totalitarian powers would have been listed among the enemies of freedom. That Americans are now quite comfortable with fictional good guys who sound and act like Soviet-era thugs is a measure of just how much Al Qaida took from the United States on 11 September 2001.
 
And not only from the United States. Thirty-six years ago Rob Muldoon’s plans to expand the surveillance powers of the Security Intelligence Service were met with huge demonstrations in all the main centres.
 
No such protests greeted the legislation which has, over the course of the last 12 years, dangerously extended the surveillance powers of the state. It’s as if agents Bauer and Gibbs have convinced us that: “If we have nothing to hide then we have nothing to fear.”
 
But, as Mr Snowden says: “Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded ... [I]t’s getting to the point where you don’t have to have done anything wrong you simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody – even from a wrong call. And then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinise every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis to derive suspicion from an innocent life.”
 
Because, as the civil liberties lawyer, Tim McBride, observes: “[W]e do have something to hide, not because it is criminal or even shameful, but simply because it is private.”
 
The details of our lives belong to us – not the GCSB. We surrender the right “not to be known against our will” – at our peril.
 
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 June 2013.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

We should be pleased that they no longer have to physically bug our homes, because I've always worried a little bit about what to do if I find a bug. Am I entitled to destroy it? Or is it government property and therefore sacrosanct? Or like that guy that found that SIS person in this house actually bugging his home. What am I entitled to do in that situation? Obviously the police were no use because he tried that and they refused to do anything. Are we entitled to give them a good thrashing? These questions are no longer an issue. The only question that now arises is what to do if we are falsely accused. Its all very well to say that if you are doing nothing wrong you have nothing to fear, but it's quite expensive both financially and in time to clear your name. And with the incompetence of the authorities in this country, it'll probably happen more than you'd think.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Mark Hubbard

We've had that debate, Mark. We're not having it again.

This is not a blog for libertarian venting.

Sorry.

Scouser said...

Do people actually believe the fantasy computer actions portrayed on such programs and films? The instant hacking in to satellite feeds, the amazing pistol shots from enormous distances, the tremendously athletic achievements of the actors, the ability to find a cellphone location within seconds, the good guys almost always win etc.
You could as easily argue that there is a conspiracy to make the police and similar agencies seem all powerful and wonderful. The fact is that this is a competitive environment that frequently kills a TV series more often than not. No great conspiracy there. But keep up with the well written conspiracy theories – they are entertaining, if fictional.
To the actual point. Is PRISM an issue? – absolutely. The US is happy to treat all foreigners in any way it wishes. Its parochialism is amazing. It wonders why it often receives dislike from many, which is yet another sign of its blindness and arrogance.
If even half of what is portrayed is true it is a huge strike in to the privacy of Internet users and will lead to much of the infrastructure of the Internet being moved out of the US – serves them right.

Anonymous said...

@ Anon - if that is the case, then why did the NZ govt pass the Search & Surveillance Act earlier this year, giving NZ Police, spies and other govt agencies the power to install bugs and cameras in our businesses and homes?

Add the PRISM levels of spying on our internet and telephone communications, and you have a near total surveillance of us by the state.

And that is before we mention the use of drones (NZ air force bought one!), and tracking of our movements by GPS of cellphone towers, and the new HOP public transport card (Brisbane police were getting all such PT card movements data without a warrant until they were sprung a few years ago - PT officials were happy to comply with their version of Jack Bauer's).

Tragically, so many people just shrug their shoulders. They can't get their heads round it, feel powerless to do anything about it, and like Chris said, often they have been propagandised so much they believe the state is spying on us for our own good ;(

Mad Marxist.

Anonymous said...

Mad M if that remark was addressed to me you should look up 'irony'. :-)It applies to all except the last two sentences.

peter petterson said...

You cannot give a five-fingered salute to the Secret Five, unless you want to spend the rest of your life travelling on the oriental Express...

Pat said...

Really good article, Chris. Thanks.

David said...

"The War on Terror" - an enemy with no particular characteristics (can change to suit the circumstances), a war that can go on forever - the perfect excuse for permanently removing individual liberties, freedom and privacy

Robert said...

In considering these issues, furthur reflections are needed on why the newly elected NZLP caucus were required to carefully watched the film 'downfall' on the last days of the Whitlam government and the Sterling service performed by G-G known as 'our man' by both the ALP and CIA for rather different reasons.
One also nb the sudden reapparance of Chris Boyce, friend of Daulton Lee and Sean Penn. Now rehabilitated from a half way house in the Tenderloin. Boyce is now back in play- in a long interview with CNN, the text is 99% supportive of Snowden, while of course also making the only relevant point, in the clutter, made also by the head of Fonterra-'don't trust the Chinese',never trust the Chinese, in effect they will always betray you.
Even more relevant to all the the issue regarding the GCSB is the critical long interview Boyce was allowed to give with Australian 60 minutes on 23 May 1982 at the height of Reagans from a US Maximum security prison. The interview with 60 minutes reporter Martin appears an extraordinary revealation of the extent of American intelligence in Australia, there hatred of Whitlam-for opposition to Linebacker, being a socialist and for wanting to inquire into the vital satellite station at Pine Gap-ask questions and publicise them.
It seems incredible that Boyce was allowed to make this interview accompanied only by his own lawyer, a left leaning former FBl officer, ( like Boyce's in popular description- although in reality the Boyce like Daulton Lee adopted family are bloodline US military aristorcracy and the real significance of Boyce senior was he was head of security at McDonnell Douglas). Its even more curious how Boyce in 5 minutes daily phone calls to Timothy Hutton was allowed to effectively take over the direction of the Falcon and Snowman- listen to how much some of the TRW staff hated ALP govt when drunk at the 'bucket'. In the long interview with Boyce in 1982- the critical question Martin asks is 'has anything changed in US relations since Fraser, took office re access to US intelligence from the moment the ALP took office when all sig US intelligence on satellite surveillance of the USSR...... took office. 'Nothing-absolutely nothing.'
Fraser was equally infra dig with Reagan as Whitlam had been with Kissinger. So from utterly different sources I am pretty sure that Kirk and Frank Corner were as unprintable in the White House after Jan 73.
The real message being communicated by Chris Boyce in the 1982 interview- if the ALP puts another 'socialist' in the form of Hayden in Lodge- you better be very careful whats under the PMs car.

Chris Trotter said...

This is pretty mind-blowing stuff, Robert. Are there any links you could provide to these stories? I'd heard the one about "The Downfall" - even used it in my book "No Left Turn" - but the others, man, they're chilling.

Unknown said...

An Orwell quote, "We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm".

I don't feel as though we live in a police state, in fact I feel safer knowing that there are the supposed rough men standing ready in the night.

But then again, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you...

Tim said...

That is quite interesting Robert - especially the "The real message being communicated by Chris Boyce in the 1982 interview- if the ALP puts another 'socialist' in the form of Hayden in Lodge- you better be very careful whats under the PMs car".
I'm reminded of Jim Cairns (check out Wikipaedia - I had to remind myself - it doesn't mention being quite badly bashed up during late 60s/early 70s). And even before that. It seems those that leant/lean a little too far to the left were often 'sent a message', whether by way of dirty tricks, or outright physical harm.