12 August 2011

Dave is right, and I'm as surprised about it as you are.

Well that didn't take long, less than a week after the worst riots in the UK in living memory, Dave Cameron has finally identified the cause. It is not extreme wealth inequality, nor the maltreatment of the marginalized by those in authority, nor even the X-Factor/Football culture where the raw talent of the few is glorified over education, training and self-development by the many; no, my friends, the true villains here, according to Dave, are technology and the Internets, as he outlined yesterday in Parliament:
"Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill," said Cameron.

"And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.

"I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers."
In less than a week the Internets have gone from being praised by the UK Government (erroneously) for helping the downtrodden masses of the Middle East rise up against their oppressive masters during the condescendingly named 'Arab Spring', to being a fearful enterprise used by thugs to plot 'violence, disorder and criminality'.

"Pot-ay-toe, pot-ah-toe", I say; it seems that it all depends on who the oppressive master is that is in danger of being overthrown.

But surprisingly Dave is right (and yes, that sounds even more preposterous on the lips than "I agree with Nick"), but for all the wrong reasons. Dave is looking at three or four large multinational corporations who control the majority of communications between UK citizens and bemoaning the fact that he cannot listen in, when he should be alarmed at the fact that three or four large multinational corporations control the majority of communications between UK citizens in the first place, and that they can, and do, listen in.

At the dawn of the millennium came the first growths in the public consciousness of what came to be called ECHELON, the US/UK (with assistance from Canada, Australia and New Zealand) global monitoring system that intercepts and tracks all telephone, fax and internet traffic. Largely believed to consist of a vast array of listening stations that intercept all communications traffic, and software that scans through these intercepts identifying keywords associated with security concerns and then flagging these communications for follow-up by human intelligence workers, ECHELON has been the basis for numerous films, TV plots and other things that go bump in the night. While protests were raised by individuals and groups as large as the EU (though only when it was allegedly used for corporate espionage on behalf of US companies), in the subsequent decade it largely faded into the background of the collective consciousness as something that we all assume the US government to be doing all the time anyway, and we just get on with our lives.

We manage to live with it because, as recent history has shown us, the US government really isn't that good at doing anything with the intelligence they gather, when they even manage to gather it in the first place. America may be watched over by the All-Seeing Eye, but that Eye is incredibly bad at understanding what it sees. But as Dave and his ideological fellow travelers in the US Republican Party are so happy to tell us, all the people who are really good and efficient at what they do are in the private sector, so as long as we don't turn over the control and monitoring of the majority of global communication to private and for-profit corporations without any national or territorial ties, we'll all be ok then.

Oops.

Whether it is Facebook, Twitter or old-fashioned email services like Gmail, the Western World has embraced free communication platforms. But of course none of these services are truly free, the majority are advertising-supported, running ads targeted at individual users of the service based on their online activity. Complex programs scan through every single communication sent on these platforms, every update, every status message, every 'Like', and combine this online behaviour pattern with selected keywords contained within the communications to put together a detailed profile of the user and deliver more targeted ads. And unlike the US government these corporations have the resources, with their vast array of global data centres, to be able to process all this information and analyse it without the need for much human oversight.

Not that this stops humans from intercepting these communications (as appears to have been a fairly widespread practice in some online media companies). A government employee normally needs some form of court order before they can read your mail, no such legal restrictions apply to employees of your email service provider. A Royal Mail employee in the UK who opens your letter can go to jail for Treason (it being the Queen's mail after all), a UK Facebook engineer who reads your chatlog is just doing their job. Internal company guidelines are not the same thing as national or international law.

But with the ECHELON 2.0 system that these communication giants effectively run, human interception of individual messages isn't even the main concern, it is their vast aggregating systems and the sheer power of their analytical abilities that should worry us. The same algorithm that Google uses to predict global flu trends based on search traffic for specific flu-related keywords could just as easily predict insurrections or uprisings based on keywords located within Gmail messages, or Google Talk messages, or Google Voice phone calls. The communication giants have at their hands an intelligence service potentially unrivaled by any government - the NSA may track thousands of individuals, but Google and Facebook can track and predict the activities of entire nations, and much more effectively than the governments of those nations can themselves.

And they do this all in real time.

Unlike ECHELON where all this activity was illicit and covert, with ECHELON 2.0 we willingly hand over all this information ourselves and sign away all our rights with every click of a Terms & Conditions pop-up.

And in contrast to any government whose activities, in theory, are motivated by a national self-interest that should benefit the citizenry of that country, corporations are beholden to no-one. The myth of share-holder responsibility is a fig leaf to put a human face on the fact that the only responsibility corporations have is to Capital itself. If you can predict flu outbreaks, what do you do with that information? A human would try and prevent them from happening, Capital will wait for the outbreak and then sell pharmaceuticals.

Dave was right, the free flow of information can be used for good and it can also be used for ill. He was just wrong about who has the power to abuse it.

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