Created 15th June 2013 –
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The PRISM scandal:

Efficacy versus the Panopticon –
the significance of psychology over dataveillance in the PRISM debate

The great media panic during June is of course the PRISM scandal[1] – the "not-news" that the world's intelligence agencies are spying on their publics, not just their enemies (not-news because I thought it was common knowledge, certainly since the disclosure of the ECHELON[a] and Carnivore[b] programmes over a decade ago). My problem with the PRISM[c] debate to date (apart from the irrational, Hollywood-fuelled paranoia over surveillance) is that most commentators have been concentrating on the technology and its legal implications, rather than asking about the motivations behind these programmes.

Paul Mobbs (left!) circa. 1986 -- leading a peace walk across USAF Croughton "Back in the day", when I started-out on my path to becoming a full-time environmentalist, surveillance was very much more in your face. Literally, you'd go to demonstrations, pickets or peace camps and there'd be someone who'd point a camera right in your face (again, long before the police formally created Forward Intelligence Teams[e]) and take your photo for the "SB"[f]. Then again, at the time I probably looked the part – as shown in this screenshot from one of the Cruisewatch videos from 1985 (no, that's me on the left!).

Around the same time as this clip, when outside the Upper Heyford peace camp, a car stopped and someone jumped out with a camera. Everyone around me dived for cover or hid their faces under coats or behind placards; but I stood there, lifted my arm in a peace salute and gave a big smile whilst the plain-clothes operative snapped away. Later, when I asked people why they dived away from the camera, they generally expressed the view that they didn't want to have their photo taken for the surveillance records. And essentially, that's the greater concern that is being expressed through the media today regarding the PRISM programme. And, just as 30 years ago, I question whether such reactions are necessary, or whether they actually assist the offical processes of mass surveillance being carried out today.

Now I probably take a rather an "academic" view of this issue, relying as much on the historical texts of Winstanley[g] and Machiavelli[h] in my campaigns work just as much as Saul Alinsky[i] or Gene Sharp[j]. The difficulty is that once you take the "psychology of power" out of the context for surveillance, not only do you give the process more creedance than it's worth, you're going to misunderstand your own ability to respond to it. For example, in the Fifth Century BC, chapter 13 of Sun Tzu's historic tract on human conflict[k] gave advice on The Use of Spies that reflects many aspects of the use (and pitfalls!) of state/corporate surveillance today. Surveillance has been a constant of human affairs for centuries; it's not a modern invention. Accordingly, if we're going to look at what this issue really means, then we have to pull it apart from the human end of the problem, not simply the technology involved.

Of course the situation today is wholly different than 30 years ago. You don't have to do anything, or "look the part", in order to be singled out and involved in the state's surveillance mechanisms. 30 years ago you had to be deliberately targeted by the state; the technological restrictions, and the administrative expense of surveillance meant that someone really had to be worth watching to justify the resources required. Today, thanks to the networked society everyone from state security services, to Nigerian spammers and Russian cybercrime gangs, are routinely surveilling tens of millions of people. Whereas once surveillance was a high art, today it's a routine business practice, taught not just in spy schools but also within the marketing modules of graduate psychology courses.

To be the subject of surveillance today all you have to do is live your everyday life; and the greater part of that life which is lived in the digital realm, the greater the amount of data which will be generated about you. What's more interesting about surveillance today compared to the 1980s is the extent to which these operations have been outsourced to "non-governmental" corporations. I don't just mean the intelligence corporations like Booz Allen Hamilton[2] – former employers of whistle-blower Edward Snowdon. I mean High Street shops, banks and the many 'free' membership web sites that store large amounts of data[l]. Collectively these create an accurate profile of every facet of our lives just as well as any 1980s phone tap or mail intercept ever could. Or, as John Naughton recently observed[3] about free email/social media services on-line, we are not "their customers", we are "users" – the customers of on-line social media are advertisers who want to exploit these networks and what they know about their users.

The practical difficulty with this process is that today's privacy and surveillance laws are framed within the historic concepts of "private communications" – such as voice communications or written words. What these laws fail to grasp is the immense power of communications data[m] to assemble a profile every bit as detailed as having access to your actual word or voice communications – using the latest databasing and statistical data-matching[4] techiques, collectively creating a whole new class of analytical processes known as "big data"[n]. Had the technology of the 1980s not progressed then we wouldn't be having this debate today. The problem is that the technology has progressed but the legal procedures and definitions, whether deliberately or by administrative ignorance above, have not developed to match the functional creep of data processing technology.

Thus far people have quibbled whether mass surveillance of the populous is legal, and how this could be authorised. What the media has to date ignored is a little known part of the police and security services law known as the "common purpose principle"[o]. I covered this in detail in a report I wrote in 2009 – Britain's Secretive Police Force[6] – on the surveillance of protest and the police's "domestic extremism" agenda. What the law allows – under Section 93[6] of The Police Act 1997 and Section 5[7] of The Security Services Act 1996 – is that any group or identfiable movement who express support for, or act to carry out, even very minor breaches of the law can be investigated as if they were part of a major criminal organisation. And in order to do that the police, security services, and to an extent even local councils are able to utilise communications data in order to track down anyone from bona fide terrorists to inconsiderate dog walkers. Seriously! – local authorities have used the same surveillance powers which legitimate the use of PRISM to track down people who let their dogs crap on the pavement[8]. As a microcosm of the global surveillance agenda, the laws/processes being used to justify the use of PRISM today have been operating across Britain for more than a decade to investigate everyday infractions of local council bylaws, as outlined in reports[9] by anti-surveillance campaign groups.

At this point I want to introduce a concept called "the Panopticon"[p] – which was devised over 220 years ago by the classical economist and philosopher, Jeremy Bentham[q]. The problem with prisons is that to generate good behaviour inmates must feel that they are "being watched"; and of course in order to instil this sense of surveillance in the prison population you have to have a low ratio of guards to inmates – which is very expensive. Bentham came up with the idea of the Panopticon – a circular shaped prison where the cells around the edge of the structure could be easily be watched by a very few guards in the central core of the building. The guards watched through small windows, and therefore the inmates were never aware if they were being watched or not. However, given the penalties for infractions of the strict prison regime, the inmate would have to assume that they were being watched for fear of punishment, and so eventually the practice of "acting with civility" would become habituated.

There is of course a Panopticon-like process relating to PRISM, to an extent demonstrated within the response of the public and media to the revelations of mass surveillance. Or rather, the perceived offence taken by certain sections of the population, since depending on whose figures you take anything from a third[10] (from a centre-left leaning publication) to just over a half[11] (centre-right leaning) of the US population support the PRISM surveillance programme. For me, what these varying degrees of support express is more to do with how people relate to surveillance rather than how people value the security of the state. If people are happy with their lives, and their everyday actions, then they're less likely to worry about state surveillance; but if people perceive that some aspect of their life or beliefs is wrong or deviant, then they are more likely to feel that they have something to be guilty about.

Which is why mass digital surveillance is like a virtual version of the Panopticon. It instills in those who feel that some aspect of their life will annoy the state, or elements of the state and its corporate supporters, an almost neurotic fear of official reprisal. And we might speculate that this would be, in the eyes of those who want to control the thoughts and actions of the public, a wholly beneficial side-effect of the current debate on PRISM and state surveillance. As stronger and more repressive policing of protest over recent years has cast campaign groups in a more negative context, with the use of label such as "domestic extremism"; so mass state surveillance – allied to statements such as, "the innocent have nothing to hide"[12] – instill in the populous a fear of dissent. And that may render those who are unsure of their thoughts/beliefs, or who do not fully understand the technical implications of certain aspects of state policy, retiscent in response to further Government excesses or failures in the future.

However, for me what this ultimately boils down to is an issue of conscience. I never wanted to be "a radical" (does anyone?). What led me to do the things I did, and still do today, is a feeling that I cannot stand by and allow things to take place which I consider "wrong". And for that reason preserving anonymity, or avoiding state surveillance, isn't an issue to get worked up about. What this boils down to is "power" – the power we perceive the state has over us versus the power we believe we have over our own affairs. In the ideal state there would be an equatable and co-operative balance between the two; but where one group seeks control over another there will always be an element of "psychological conflict"[r] implicit within this relationship.

Within society what gives any issue substance is people – whether it's the character of a political leader in creating confidence, or the human interest "and finally" story at the end of the news. It's not just that anonymity denies the value of our own conscience to guide our actions on issues such as war, pollution or political change. When we act anonymously we take away the physical substantiation from the acts we take part in because – through anonymity – we are saying that the issue is not worth "standing up and being counted" for. For that reason I've never shied away from surveillance, or have sought to hide my participation in actions to create change (as I've heard from activists on many occasions, "if you're not getting hassle, then you're not doing it right").

For example, in 1999 when I helped organise the global on-line action against the WTO's Seattle Conference[s] (using "hacktivist"[t] techniques a decade before Anonymous came along) I never hid my identity. Not only did I put my contact details on the materials produced for the campaign, I also appeared in the media[13] a number of times. Did I get some official hassle for that, yes; do I still get people talking negatively about that work today, yes; but I still support those actions today because they stemmed from an honest and thought-out set of ideas and principles which I still believe. At the time, as today, being open about my actions allowed me to have far greater access to the media and to other public fora (e.g. I got to debate the issue at the ICA and other venerable venues), thereby giving me a far greater ability to represent those views to the general public.

Far more than web-anonymising software or living in some off-grid neo-primitivist existence, holding an informed and well-tempered conscience is the Achilles Heel of Panopticon-like surveillance processes (read Solzhenitsyn[u] to discover more). If you act honestly and from conviction, then it is difficult for the state to repress a widespread movement of such like-minded people – even when more repressive physical techniques are employed: From the Lollards[v] who dissented from the power of the 14th Century church and created the seeds of the modern Church of England (and were burnt as heretics); to the Levellers[w] of the 17th Century whose opposition to the Commonwealth Government prefigured modern British democracy (but at the time were hung); to the Women's Sufferage[x] movement of the 19th and 20th Century who laid the foundations for modern equal rights law (who were vilified in the mass media and/or imprisoned) – no great progressive change in society has been achieved without some measure of conscience-based opposition to the status quo. And in each case that inevitably means some form of law breaking, given that acting out of conscience means challenging through personal action those laws or customs which offend our personal sense of "what is right".

Move forward to today and that reality has not changed. What has changed is that through the legal definition of the "common purpose principle", and the relatively cheap means of mass dataveillance available to governments and corporations, the state now has a far greater ability to try and rein-in dissenting movements. Even so, if you hold the conviction that what you are doing is right, such techniques are in reality meaningless – just as the more injurious punishments of the past did not dissuade society from eventual reform.

Finally we need to speculate a "why", an explanation that seeks to fit the facts to the motivations of those "in charge". From my reading of the media in Britain and around the world over the last week or so, I've seen very few attempts at disgnosing motivations. It seems that the purpose of these system is often lost in the clamour to criticise the security services, or lost within the the cynical dismissal of the trustworthyness of our political leaders. Of the articles I found which did attempt a reasoned explanation, one of the most detailed and referenced was that proposed by Nafeez Ahmed in Guardian On-line[14] (if you're going to read any link in discussion, make it this one!).

As I highlighted in the report I wrote in 2009 on Britain's Secretive Police Force[5], the advice being given today by a growing number of academics and corporate experts is increasingly at odds with the "keep calm and carry on" mantra being issued by governments. Ahmed sees mass surveillance programmes like PRISM as part of the state response to the rising concern about ecological damage, and growing wealth disparities across most of the world's developed states. Both these problems give rise to the potential for social unrest, and because those in charge cannot counternance a significant change in policy to address the public's concerns, surveillance and the gowing "domestic extremism" agenda are the simplest response.

When we look at the messages coming out of military and political think-tanks, on future economic policy on the growing problems created by the ever-tightening The Limits to Growth[y], what we see is a dissonance between the public statements of the political class and the growing backroom concern regarding the future of the "Western lifestyle". And as the body of evidence on ecological limits and resource depletion grows, we see ever more extreme responses from policy-makers in order to perserve, as J.K. Galbraith expressed such administrative expediency, the "conventional wisdom" on economic policy.

It doesn't matter that before the second Earth Summit George Bush senior might have said, "The American way of life is not negotiable" – not so much as a personal statement but as an expression of unwritten Western economic policy. There is no "choice" about whether we change or not. Ecological limits operate outside of the human economy, and therefore ecological collapse is inevitable unless we change those trends driving us towards it. Unfortunate it looks likely that the economic ship of neoliberalism will not be turned away from the oncoming ecological storm, because such drastic change does not favour the present economic status quo – and nor will it, until it is way too late to change. That's why we need dissent – to highlight the critical evidence now amassing against the "business as usual", and force the necessary scale of change upon the unwilling/ineffectual governmental processes.

The message coming out of the latest research studies, from stoic military academics[15] as well as government-backed research agencies[16], is that the modern conception of Western materialism is in imminent danger of collapse. Of course, in such an environment you would expect the supporters of the economic status quo to be a little jumpy. And out of fear they might enact policies that sought to control the public's response to the problem, rather than addressing the causes of the problem directly. To crank that oft-used quote from Roosevelt, within its proper context, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance". In our present context, however, perhaps the statement of physicist Richard Feynman is more practically applicable – "reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled".

Right now "fear" is the default mode of the Western governments to the challenge over economic policy. Within this environment it's not only external threats that are on the agenda, increaingly we see the term "domestic extremism" used to describe a range of activist groups – both in the USA[17] and in Britain[18]. For example, in 2009 the Dyfed-Powys Police Authority's Local Policing Summary[19], posted through every letterbox in the area, stated under the heading Terrorism and Domestic Extremism that –

Therefore, when the Home Secretary proposed new controls over "extremists"[20] in May 2013, we have to question whether such restrictions are aimed at Islamic clerics, or will be more broadly applied to cover many groups challenging the authority state on economic and environmental policy.

The most chilling fact is that our government and their economic gurus view our present difficulties not as a failure of the our economic models, but as evidence that we have not followed that model to its proper conclusion. Thus we see the government now restricting rights to legal aid, tightening the rules to it is harder to challenge government decisions in the courts, and relaxing a whole range of laws in order to allow the greater exploitation of people and the environment. And the justification for this is not the "the greater good", or because it will make us better off, but as David Cameron said in a speech[21] to the CBI last year –

...and of course, in war it is possible to justify anything in the name of success.

Irrespective of what surveillance methods are used, for the state, the greatest challenge will always be from those who act not from fear or uninformed beliefs but from a well-thought-through and sincere conviction. After all, if we compare digital surveillance techniques to the methods traditionally employed by repressive states over history, they don't really measure up to much! One of my favourite films is Terry Gilliams, Brazil[z] – and in that film I think one of the greatest lines was, "Confess quickly! If you hold out too long you could jeopardize your credit rating." For me this comedic device reveals a deeper truth in the debate adout data-surveillance within a consumer society – stir the cauldron of the state too much and you won't get a loan!

The worst possible thing for the state is for the public to learn the detailed facts and arguments behind a particular issue, and then for the public to act-out a positive response to that issue from their own settled conscience. Such popular movements are to a greater extent unassailable, and have demonstrably succeeded, in the end, throughout history. If you want to understand that practically, fifty years on Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail[22] sums up that concept quite poetically. Seeking those ends, and helping others to discover them, pretty much sums up the last thirty years of my work – whether that be through public inquiries or in protest camps.

The power of helping people realise a personal sense of conviction in the value and conduct of their lives is, for me, indisputable: You can't force people acting from personal conviction to adopt some form of neurotic knee-jerk response to surveillance because they will ignore it; and neither can veilled threats succeed because, when acting out of conviction, such threats often reinforce the motivation for their actions. I know, because that's me; I have been surveilled, and physically threatened by state action, and come through it not only unscathed but stronger in my conviction to act. And from sharing my experiences with others who have been through that same process – and worse – the results are broadly similar with others too.

My problem with PRISM isn't an issue of privacy, it's about technical efficacy. For me what sinks the whole concept is the sheer technical hubris required to believe that mass dataveillance can create a reliable framework for security. It will never do what they say it will, and is likely to create many false positives that will ultimately corrupt the true positive results. And in any case, circumventing these systems can be taught relatively easily – so event the most technically mediocre terrorist can circumvent such systems with little effort (e.g, try looking up information on "darknets"[aa] or the Tor system[23]).

And in terms of controlling my work as a "domestic extremist", I have no problem with being surveilled by the PRISM programme because it's not going to change what I do. In fact, I'm quite happy for "them" to know that I have no problem with it – or any similar metaphorical Wizard of Oz-like threat to instill civil conformity. As in the meaning of its Biblical use[24], "the truth will set you free", because it is in understanding the truth of our objective situation that we find the personal conviction to change our lives. Yes, I have been hassled, arrested and detained over the years, but thirty years later I am not living in some paranoid state of fear; rather the opposite, in fact – I am empowered by conscience. Acting according to conscience might get you into trouble, but at the same time it's by acting according to your conscience that you are able to freely and confidently act to represent what you believe to be true, and that gives you a great resource of personal strength.

For those seeking ecological and political change, expressing this truth through personal action conflicts with the objectives of those who set national and global economic priorities. Their truth is based upon converting the Earth's resources into property[25] without regard to the impact of that process upon natural ecosystems. Therefore Government policy is not just flawed, it is carried out with a malfeasant ignorance of objective fact. Fearing what the state might do to you if you annoy them does not alter that reality, and in fact might hasten its realisation. If you annoy the state they might imprison you; if you do not try then eventually you, or your children, might suffer an even worse fate as a result of the ecological overshoot[ab] of the human species.

Only by opposing this official and wilfull ignorance of the truth, by living that truth though our conviction that all life on Earth is sacred and must be protected, will we have a chance of altering that outcome. Set against these potential outcomes, PRISM doesn't really make much difference at all!

References: General
  1. PRISM, Guardian On-line news articles index
  2. Investigate Booz Allen Hamilton, not Edward Snowden, Guardian On-line, 14th June 2013
  3. To the internet giants, you're not a customer. You're just another user, Guardian On-line, 9th June 2013
  4. Data matching – a threat to privacy?, Guardian On-line, 23rd November 2009
  5. Britain's Secretive Police Force: Politicising the Policing of Public Expression in an Era of Economic Change, Free Range Network Report Q2, April 2009
  6. Section 93, The Police Act 1997,
  7. Section 5, The Security Services Act 1996,
  8. Councils using anti-terror laws to spy on dog walkers, Telegraph On-line, 24th May 2010
  9. The Grim RIPA: Cataloguing the ways in which local authorities have abused their covert surveillance powers, Big Brother Watch, May 2010
  10. Guardian poll finds majority in US want greater oversight, Guardian On-line, 13th June 2013
  11. Officials say Americans protected by Prism surveillance program, Washington Times, 10th June 2013
  12. Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have 'Nothing to Hide, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 11th May 2011
  13. Protest and the Net, BBC Newsnight, November 1999
  14. Pentagon bracing for public dissent over climate and energy shocks, Guardian On-line, 14th June 2013
  15. Peak Oil: Security Policy Implications of Scarce Resources, Bundeswehr, November 2010 Oil_Study EN.pdf
  16. A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality, CSIRO, 2008
  17. Domestic Extremism Lexicon: A reference aid from the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, US Department for Homeland Security, 2009
  18. Police warn of growing threat from eco-terrorists, The Observer, 9th November 2009
    (note, this article was later withdrawn by The Observer because it was fabricated, and so this copy is from the Free Range Report Q2, see ref.5)
  19. Local Policing Summary, Dyfed Powys Police Authority, 2009
  20. Hate preachers face ban from British TV... and Google could be forced by law to block extremist websites, Mail On-line, 26th May 2013
  21. Prime Minister's speech to CBI, Prime Minister's Office, 19th November 2012
  22. 50 years on Martin Luther King's letter from Birmingham jail is still a remarkable work, Independent On-line, 20th April 2013
  23. The Tor system: Welcome to the dark internet where you can search in secret, Independent On-line, 10th June 2013
  24. John's Gospel, 8:31-47 (New International Version), Bible Gateway
  25. Earth into Property: Colonization, Decolonization, and Capitalism, Anthony J. Hall, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010

References: Wikipedia
  2. Carnivore
  3. PRISM
  4. RAF Croughton
  5. Forward Intelligence Team
  6. Special Branch
  7. Gerrard Winstanley
  8. Nicolo Machiavelli
  9. Saul Alinsky
  10. Gene Sharp
  11. The Art of War
  12. Dataveillance
  13. Communications data
  14. Big data
  15. Common purpose
  16. Panopticon
  17. Jeremy Bentham
  18. Psychological warfare
  19. 1999 Seattle WTO Protests
  20. Hacktivism
  21. Solzhenitsyn
  22. Lollardy
  23. Levellers
  24. Suffragette
  25. The Limits to Growth
  26. Brazil (1985 film)
  27. Darknet (file sharing)
  28. Overshoot (population)