The private eye

The private eye

Jun 18, 2013

Sreeram Chaulia

Sensational revelations by the former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee, Edward Snowden, about the vast spying dragnet of America’s National Security Agency (NSA) have raised apprehensions about the surveillance state’s threat to civil liberties. The sweeping eye of the NSA, which has been tapping phone calls, text messages, search engine patterns, bank records, emails and Internet-based conversations of foreigners as well as Americans, is of frighteningly Orwellian proportions.
Snowden’s exposé of the NSA’s monitoring tentacles, backed by his appealing anti-authority ideology, have become catnip for left-wing activists, right-wing conservatives as well as libertarians opposed to government interference in social and economic affairs. His testimony alleging US governmental domination over “American society and global society” have magnified fears in the American right about the state’s overreach and caused jitters abroad about American electronic imperialism.
Indians are aghast to know that the NSA made our country the fifth most tracked nation in its digital spying canvas. Seminal values taken for granted in democracies — from press freedom to the right to confidentiality of private exchanges — are at stake in the storm generated by Snowden’s whistleblowing.
Yet, the least understood phenomena in this affair is the role of private American corporations in erecting what critics label as an “empire of databases” to control the masses. The NSA’s PRISM operation, whose beans were spilled by Snowden, works via close alliances between government intelligence agencies and top American IT companies like Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Apple, Facebook and Skype.
These technology firms willingly colluded with the American government to hand over electronic communications tranches and allegedly even access to their servers. If this was a case of Big Brother seeking the much-touted Big Data to watch over every word and sentence uttered in the house, it was Big Corporate America that was the co-conspirator. Denials by American IT service-providing corporations that they had “never heard of PRISM” fly in the face of Snowden’s depiction of tight cooperation between the state and the private sector in harvesting limitless information.
There is a second layer of private corporate complicity in this grand eavesdropping scheme. Snowden himself was working for a firm called Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the largest private contractors in the US military intelligence complex. More than 70 per cent of the entire American intelligence budget lines the pockets of politically connected private contractors like Booz, Palantir Technologies Inc. and Science Applications International Corporation.
If Snowden was privy to top classified material, it implies that private companies, whose main client and customer is the US government, have the power to make or mar the lives of average Americans and foreigners. Mined information that could be abused to harass, intimidate or even frame innocent persons who have no terrorist or criminal connections is as much in the hands of corporate America as with the US government.
Blaming the state as a singularly evil accumulator of records that represses citizens misses the entrenchment of a hybridised machinery of surveillance consisting of government as well as private corporations. Why is there no brouhaha over the wholesale privatisation of the US military intelligence complex?
Investigative journalist Tim Shorrock’s book, Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing, argues that “the key phrase in the new counterterrorism lexicon is ‘public-private partnerships’”, wherein “partnerships are in reality a convenient cover for the perpetuation of corporate interests”. Prof. Chalmers Johnson adds that the “staggering over-privatisation of the collection and analysis of intelligence” in the US has boosted opportunities for foreign spy agencies to trawl American state secrets.
As if on cue, China’s state-owned Global Times has suggested that Snowden, who is hiding on Chinese soil, could be used to extract “more solid information” about American computer hacking and cyberwarfare means. It is a public admission of a counter-intelligence strategy that the Chinese must be already implementing by planting moles in private US security firms.
A more troubling aspect of the outsourcing of national security functions by the American state to private entities is that the latter are unaccountable to non-shareholders and the bulk of the citizenry in the US, not to mention the people of the world whose communications are being bilked in toto. Unlike a democratically elected government which has constraints, American corporations have fewer checks on their misdeeds.
In neo-liberal America, more accusatory fingers are pointed at government excesses than corporate crimes. The conservatives huffing and puffing about Mr Obama “checking your email” dare not object to the unprecedented power that America Inc. has accumulated over American citizens and non-Americans. The private security contractors enjoy bipartisan backing in the US Congress for the jobs they provide to constituents and the pork-barrel politics they sustain for friendly legislators.
Apparitions of governmental encroachment over citizens’ day-to-day lives are dated because they fail to account for the privatisation of authority that has been underway in the last three decades. In the book, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, describes a new digital totalitarianism, predicated on a merger of the surveillance state with the profit-hungry private corporation.
Assange, who has hailed Snowden as a hero, portrays a chilling Internet-enabled present-day scenario where there is “a soldier under our bed listening to everything”. But this supercop is increasingly not the civil servant of the CIA or MI6, but a white-collared IT geek ensconced in the private sector. China’s cyber army may still belong to the old world of government bureaucracy, but the Western intruders of our privacy are mostly corporate warriors.
Assange’s ideal of “privacy for the weak and transparency for the powerful” can never be attained unless we struggle against the intermeshed private-public surveillance trellis.

The writer is dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs

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