Paging Dr. Sous

by Thomas Knapp

Over the course of the last decade or so, “western democracies” have put Stalin’s Russia, Saddam’s Iraq, even Orwell’s fictional Oceania to shame when it comes to constant monitoring of people’s daily lives.

These days you can’t swing a cat without hitting a surveillance camera (unless it’s in the nose of one of those new-fangled drone aircraft that only a flying cat could reach), swipe your debit card or use your cell phone without at least having your location recorded in a database somewhere for later analysis … heck, can’t even transact significant business in cash without it being considered suspicious and worth looking into.

The surveillance state is here. You’re under the microscope, 24/7. Politicians and their friends in the global Military/Intelligence/Law Enforcement Industrial Complex just love watching you and everything you do, the better to control you.

The reverse? Not so much. If you don’t believe me, ask Julian Assange — under house arrest without charge for more than 500 days now on trumped-up sex crime allegations — or Bradley Manning, illegally detained for nearly two years (for the first 11 months in conditions described by UN Special Rapporteur Juan E. Mendez as “cruel, inhuman and degrading” and more aptly by Daniel Ellsberg as “no-touch torture”) and only just now given a date for his trial on charges of embarrassing Hillary Clinton … er, “aiding the enemy” … by allegedly (in cooperation with Assange’s Wikileaks) showing Americans what “their” government is up to.

I can’t help but think that anything the politicians and their cronies hate must have something going for it, and fallout from the increasing trend of “inverse surveillance” — a sub-category of sousveillance — seems to confirm my bias.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — who watches the watchers? The answer increasingly comes down to “we do — all of us.” And the watchers hate, hate, hate it.

In the world of international politics, it’s getting harder and harder for governments to cover up their dirty tricks, atrocities and war crimes, or to convincingly manufacture such things and blame them on other regimes (note to US-funded Syria “activists”: JPEG or it didn’t happen).

At the level of domestic law enforcement, police departments are more and more often forced by victim- or bystander-recorded video to conduct expensive and distrust-inducing sham “investigations,” placing officers on vaca … er, “paid administrative leave” … while they’re “absolved of all wrongdoing” after they violently assault peaceful (though sometimes impudent) serfs.

And at every level in between those two, the state is exposed to the constant ridicule it deserves, just because we’re watching its agents and documenting their peccadilloes.

Yes, there’s a backlash, but it’s a positive feedback loop. Every time the victim of a police beating gets arrested for “wiretapping” the assault and putting it on display, the state looks a little more evil. Every time a Bradley Manning gets thrown in a hole or a Julian Assange gets called a rapist for broadbanding video of US troops murdering Reuters journalists or State Department cables exposing the Tunisian government’s corruption or the US Secretary of State’s order to her diplomatic minions to bug their foreign counterparts’ offices, the state looks a little more petulant and vengeful … and a lot less effectual.

And that’s a good thing! I look forward to the day when every encounter with a functionary of state — any state, anywhere — includes a video camera and an offer to make them famous. Turn on the light, and watch the roaches scurry away, lest they cease to be the stompers and become the stomped.

17 responses to “Paging Dr. Sous

  1. You’ll be getting the Statists to bribe Apple and others to not put videocams in the next generations of smartphones, then?

  2. And what about the internet? There are still countries like Russia and China (and maybe others I don’t know about) where people do “workarounds” to get data “out”, even when the State blocks info-movement officially via ISPs.

  3. David,

    “You’ll be getting the Statists to bribe Apple and others to not put videocams in the next generations of smartphones, then?”

    I expect the more likely next attempt to suppress inconvenient video would be on the storage/accessibility end — the equivalent of DMCA takedown notices, only with broader scope enabled by whatever SOPA/PIPA/CISPA type legislation can be passed with such hooks in it.

  4. Thomas, as you probably know they are creeping in internet lockdown here via various test court cases (e.g. the recent Pirate Bay decision). My guess (being a pessimist) is that at some point there’ll be a licensing system introduced, such that anyone wishing to make a website available to British web users will need to apply for a license, thus strictly controlling home-grown content, while only large foreign corporations will bother getting one. They clearly want a corporatised internet in which only a few large websites, which can be neatly controlled (e.g. Facebook, Google) are available and the old “build your own barn” ethos is entirely quashed.

    Of course, this will be an excellent system as it will protect us all from terrorists, paedophiles, racists, etc. Only a terrorist, paedophile, racist etc could possibly object!

    • Ian, yep. My sense is that they’re just trying to figure out how to do that without killing the geese that lay the golden eggs (e-commerce).

      Of course, there are workarounds (Tor, etc.), but what I think a lot of people don’t understand is that user access to the Internet is increasingly running through fewer and fewer entities as cable/DSL/G have replaced dialup. They don’t have to seize control of the Internet per se, they can just put roadblocks at the entrances to it.

  5. I don’t know what US military regulations provide but to describe the detention of Bradley Manning as “Illegal” seems a little melodramatic.
    He allegedly betrayed a huge number of his country’s secrets which it was his duty to keep secret. Of course, it was a hugely incompetent system which gave such a junior soldier access to material which (common sense would suggest) should only have been available on a “need to know” basis.
    He should, of course, have been brought to trial more quickly and, if convicted, have received an exemplary sentence. Those responsible for the security of the information system should also have been dealt with severely. People on your own side die when leaks of this sort occur.
    It’s not a jolly jape.

    • Edward,

      The US has laws relating to the classification of information.

      For example, it is illegal to classify information for purposes of hiding the commission of crimes (for example, the murder of Reuters journalists shown in the illegally classified “Collateral Murder” video Manning is accused of releasing).

      In order to be eligible for classification, a piece of information must be such that its disclosure would cause “identifiable” (confidential), “serious” (secret) or “grave” (top secret) damage to the security of the United States.

      The US government has yet to present any evidence whatsoever that any of Manning’s disclosures caused any damage at all to the security of the United States. Which means that the information was not classifiable. Which means that there’s no probable cause to believe that what Manning did was a crime. If they bothered detaining him at all, he should have had a preliminary hearing within days, at which the charges should have been dismissed based on the complete absence of any evidence to suggest that a crime had been committed.

  6. I agree. I think part of the problem is people have got drawn into this “the internet routes around censorship” paradigm and aren’t grasping that what matters is who the gatekeepers are. I was saying this a long while ago; the while on dialup an ISP is literally connecting you to the net (and thus anyone can easily start up as one), with DSL the “ISPs” are really just resellers of connectivity, particularly in this country where evreything routes through the BT network and changing ISP is effectively just choosing a new billing subcontractor (a bit of an over-simplification, but not much).

    Thus it was easy to implement a “great firewall” (BT’s CleanFeed). There is a pretend-independent body to tell them what to block on it (the Internet Watch Foundation). ISPs were, in our typical corrupt style of governance, “asked” to use Cleanfeed, and they dutifully did. Oh, and the government keep making noises about nationalising the DNS, to keep them in line.

    We are really in a very dangerous situation, I think. In my personal opinion, the old “free” internet is already gone.

  7. ^^^My above reply was to Thomas.

  8. IanB,

    It’s not much better in the United States. A little, but not a whole lot.

    As dialup has gone away, Internet access has concentrated at the level of a few cable providers and a few big phone and cell networks. As you note of the UK, most of the differentiation beyond that is just a matter of who’s the middleman collecting the bill.

    So the bad guys don’t have to so much police what’s ON the Internet as just set up a user control/blockage regime at those concentrated gateways. Tor’s great at the use level, but when your ISP says “if we detect Tor activity, your account will be closed,” it’s as good as if you didn’t have it at all.

  9. I haven’t stuided the Manning case in detail, but it seems to me a typical case of using the destruction of one particular person as a warning to everybody else- the legal system as a sledgehammer. I’d characterise the takedown of MegaUpload similarly. The ludicrous stuff about the “mega-conspiracy” would be laughable if this issue weren’t so serious. The language developed in the days of Prohibition to describe “traffickers”, “conspiracies”, “rings” etc spreads into everything the State wants to destroy.

  10. I’ve jsut gone here, and it’s still available:

  11. The Pirate Bay? Yes, it will be depending on your ISP for a little while. It’s a matter of when they get around to implementing the court order. I daresay it’ll still be possible to get there via a proxy, etc, and at some point they’ll start blocking proxies, and so on.

    The lights are going out all over Europe, but it’s a slow process. The internet has presented the greatest communications challenge ever to the Sate; far greater than their easy takeovers of other systems such as cinema, wireless, television, etc. It’s taken them so long that they’ve a major problem of an entire generation who’ve grown up with an effectively free internet. So, they are moving cautiously and awkardly. But they are moving, make no mistake.

    It’s also worth noting the shift to “possession” offences regarding pornography, “terrorist” material, pirated material, etc- on the precedent of the fabulously successful and universally beloved narcotics laws- rather than traditional censorship methodologies. It’s always nice to have another excuse to kick somebody’s door down at 5am. The State can never have enough of those. It’s always vital to be able to despatch three vanloads of police officers to cause maximal visual drama when arresting some dirty old man for having a wank to verboten pixels.

    I have this mental image of myself as an old man saying to some youngster, “well when it started up, anyone could have a website. You just paid ten bucks for the domain name, a few more bucks for some hosting, and off you went”

    And this progressive-state-educated little robot will say, “Yes, we learned about that in school, and how the government had to step in and regulate it to protect people. You can’t just have people doing what they want unregulated. It was like the Wild West.”

    And I say, wistfully, “Yes, yes it was…”

    • I see that I got off on a digression in my reply to Edward. Apart from the notion that what he is accused of doing wasn’t criminal — which I admit is arguable — his detention was illegal in several particulars.

      First, the conditions of his pre-trial detention constituted punishment (and, according to some reasonable opinions, torture) when he had yet to be convicted of anything, and that punishment was arguably “cruel and unusual” in violation of constitutional guarantees.

      Secondly, he was denied the constitutional guarantee of a speedy trial. He was arrested nearly two years ago, the government took months to bring its formal charges, and his trial date has only just now been set.

      Thirdly, he’s been denied in advance the constitutional guarantee of the right to confront his accusers at trial.

      Fourthly, the trial will likely not be public, as required by the US Constitution.

      Fifthly, I’d argue that the government’s slowness in bringing the charges and scheduling the trial made denial of bail inherently unreasonable and therefore illegal. The government tried to have it both ways: On the one hand, what he’d done was so heinous and he was such a flight risk that he couldn’t be allowed bail. On the other hand, they knew so little about what he might have done, how he might have done it, etc. that it took them two years to get their shit together enough to say “yeah, we can try him now and actually make a case.”

      Sorry, it’s one or the other, and if it’s the latter you deal with flight risk, etc. by using the now available measures (GPS ankle bracelet or whatever) to give him some measure of freedom until such time as you’re ready, not keep him in a cage while you dilly around for two years.

      Oh, and sixth: The preliminary hearing testimony of Adrian Lamo, and all related chat logs, etc., should have been barred insofar as he had clearly offered Manning not just one, but two — clerical and journalistic — guarantees of confidentiality.

  12. IanB,

    Yes, the lights are going out … but I’m optimistic that we’ll get them back on, or else we’ll read by the light of bonfires with the diesel-soaked bodies of the politicians as fuel.

  13. Edward Spalton

    Thank you for the information. It seems this is an extreme case of “the process is the punishment”. In a very small way, a friend of mine had this sort of treatment from the British police. He is an ultra-respectable, middle aged man (not a hooray Henry) who has a long association with the Countryside Movement. Whilst talking to an officer at a demonstration, he was arrested for no reason that he could think of, taken into the station, shoelaces and belt removed, DNA swabbed and banged up in a foul, urine-stinking cell for 8 hours and then released without charge. The police were showing who was boss. Only 8 hours and not 2 years but the same principle.

    Of course, people taken to other EU jurisdictions under the EAW can be kept in “investigative custody” without charge for a very long time indeed. Some people in France were held for four years like this and then released without charge or trial. I think that was a terrorist case.

    There is a big scandal in England of prisoners being unreasonably detained on remand for which there is no time limit. This does not apply in Scotland where my wife was a probation officer. If they haven’t got you into court within a set period (of, I think, a hundred days) they have to let you go. So the system is geared to work quickly.

  14. Another fine example-