Police State

by wjw on June 13, 2013

Recent events, here and in the world, have me thinking about police states, and what they are and how they come about.

In Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan— who has been democratically elected three times— heads a state that is increasingly authoritarian, and he is now depending on police forces to maintain his grip on power.  A new draft bill has landed on Erdogan’s desk that gives the Turkish intelligence service, MİT, police powers— except that while the police and the gendarmerie supposedly have to follow the law, MİT gets to make up the law as it goes along.  And also conduct operations in foreign countries— for the present, read Syria.  (Interesting that this story is in Today’s Zaman, which up till now has been a big Erdogan supporter.)

(And incidentally, the boss of MİT just got a visit from the head of Mossad.  Presumably they mostly talked about Syria, but then they’ve got an awful lot to talk about besides that.)

Over here, people are terribly shocked that the NSA has been subpoenaing the phone records of, apparently, the entire nation, as well as collecting everyone’s emails.  I’m not sure why people are being shocked now, since it’s been going on since the 1940s, it’s not particularly secret, and I remember seeing a Frontline special on PRISM (or one of its precursor programs) years ago.  (I guess I’m alone in watching PBS.)

And like, wow, my Verizon account isn’t secure from government intrusion.  Gosh.  What a surprise.  How so totally unlike Ma Bell.

I’m amazed that politicians, in particular, allege shock at these revelations.  The politicians voted for this.  Those on certain committees get regular briefings— which they’re not allowed to share with the public, but I’m guessing they talk to their colleagues.

And PRISM is only a continuation of various other NSA programs such a Ragtime, Stellar Wind, ECHELON, und so weiter.

I should point out that the NSA has been spying on Americans for decades, even when it was illegal (and I imagine that it still is, technically speaking).  NSA simply works through our allies.  Our friends in Britain, specifically the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, run the world’s biggest electronic warehouse of data on American citizens— in a program run by the NSA, for all that the Brits are supposed to be in charge of it.  Australia and New Zealand also do a lot of spying on Americans. (Huzzah, lads, for the Special Relationship!)

The fact is that it is within the capability of any modern nation to create a total surveillance state.  Archiving phone records, monitoring the Internet, use of spycams and drones . . . none of this is particularly difficult for a technologically savvy government.  (I just got a bill from the British government for driving in London back in April.  Guess I should have taken the train.)

And it’s not just the government that’s to blame.  Private companies keep track of your name, address, credit rating, income stream, cellphone number, religion, relationships, family, social security number, even your food purchases.  (What do you think those supermarket discount cards are for?)  Facebook knows everything worth knowing about most of its customers.  Monetizing the metadata is a huge industry.

What’s more honorable and desirable?  Collecting people’s private data to make money, or collecting the same data to fight terror?

I’ll tell you what’s more scary— when both happen at once.  Microsoft’s new Xbox One is designed to spy on its owners.    It will monitor your heart rate, it will monitor your movement, it embodies facial recognition.  It monitors what games you play, what movies you watch, what sites you browse.  It keeps track of your friends.  And it sends a constant 24/7 video feed home to Microsoft, so they can watch you whenever they want.  (No more making out in front of the TV, teenagers of America!)

Xbox One is the TV set from 1984, the one that watches you.  Except more sinister, because it does more than just watch, it analyzes.

Microsoft has a preexisting relationship with the NSA, though they claim to respond only to individual subpoena requests.  But still, they cooperate— just like Google, Yahoo, Apple, Facebook, etc.  (Hey, remember when all of Apple’s customer data was found on an FBI laptop?  And people are still surprised about PRISM.)

So here’s the question.  At one point does the surveillance state become a police state?

Knowledgable people like Bruce Schneier seem to think the line’s already been crossed.  Me, not so sure.

It’s one thing to collect data.  It’s another thing to use that data to crush the liberties of the citizens.

I am old enough to remember certain things.  Being tear-gassed, being shot at by police (birdshot, fortunately, not bullets).  Seeing lines of National Guard marching across campus with fixed bayonets to clear away nonviolent protesters exercising their civil rights.  (And, for that matter, National Guard charging violent protesters throwing bricks at them.)  I’m not seeing that in my country.

What we are being denied is not our liberty— here I am blogging about this, after all, and the knock on the door has not yet come— but information.  As a nation, we don’t know enough about PRISM and the other programs to know whether they’re effective, how much they cost, exactly what information is being gathered, and what is being done with it.  The head of the NSA assured Congress that “dozens” of terrorist plots have been foiled through these programs, but we don’t get to hear the details— that’s reserved for members of certain committees who are sworn not to share the information with mere citizens.

We can’t sue to discover the information, because the government claims we have no standing.  And the Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on any of it, because we can’t sue.

A functioning democracy depends on a citizens who are informed, and a government that is transparent in its workings.  An enormously expensive, all-seeing surveillance program of which we know nothing has no business in our country, or indeed in the modern world.

PhilRM June 14, 2013 at 12:49 am

Your last paragraph hits the nail squarely on the head.

Ralf The Dog. June 15, 2013 at 2:25 am

Back in 1979, the Supreme Court ruled, the police do not need a warrant to get meta data. Things like, who you called, when you called, how long you were on the phone… Today, I believe, text messages fall into that category.

The thing about PRISM is, they were not even looking at individual people. All the meta data tracked was anonymized. They did not know your name. They did not even know your phone number. Just an index number, not identifiable with a real person.

The concept of the program was, pattern recognition. If there is a sudden spike in calls from burner phones made from Pink Oklahoma to Somalia, It is probably time to call up the local Pink Oklahoma policeman and let him know, be on the lookout for people purchasing large numbers of pressure cookers.

I don’t like the FISA court system. I don’t like the idea, people are not informed, when search warrants are issued against them, even years later. That said, PRISM is not that big of a deal. I am much more concerned about them reading emails without a warrant. There is a solution for that.



wjw June 15, 2013 at 3:31 am

PRISM and its anonymized data aren’t particularly disturbing, but some of the other projects— using allies to spy on Americans, for instance— and the lack of transparency.

How do we know what we’re getting for our investment? And why don’t the Powers that Be want us to know the answer?

The Cold War-legacy intelligence institutions are too big, too inefficient, too hidden, and too expensive. We shouldn’t have to wait for whistleblowers to tell us about these programs— or for al-Qaeda’s online newsletter to tell us how to evade them.

Chris Krohn June 15, 2013 at 4:43 am

OMG, you were at the Roosevelt Park riots. I was too young, but my sister was on campus at the time. –the north campus, that is, studying for med classes. She had no idea anything was going down.

Ralf The Dog. June 15, 2013 at 4:06 pm

In other words, it’s not the spy that you know is listening to your phone calls, it is the spy you don’t know is looking through your underwear drawer.

Ralf The Dog. June 16, 2013 at 12:49 am

Now, in Congressional hearings, it comes out, low level NSA analysts can listen in to any phone conversation without a warrant, any time they want just because. All calls are also recorded for an undefined amount of time, in the event, someone wants to listen in later. I can’t picture the random conversations being stored for more than a few days, as the space needed would be insane.


Papamishka June 16, 2013 at 3:41 pm

And what do you think about using a government agency to put pressure on the current administration’s political opponents?

wjw June 17, 2013 at 2:31 am

Depends on what government agency and what kind of pressure. If you’re talking about the Bush administration using the IRS to investigate the NAACP, Greenpeace, and the Episcopal church, that sort of thing is clearly unacceptable.

wjw June 17, 2013 at 2:35 am

Chris, I should point out that I didn’t actually participate in the Roosevelt Park riots. But when the sergeant who was trying to read the Riot Act over the loudspeaker got hit in the front of the helmet with a brick, you could hear “Fuck it! Move out!” loud and clear.

Nobody before or since has ever explained to me what those riots were about. Natural high spirits, I guess.

Esebian June 17, 2013 at 1:46 pm

So, er, about those politicians being privy to the goings-on…


Well, if you want to play devil’s advocate you could allege they don’t think attendance achieves anything as they’re going to be bullshitted anyhow…

MaoTzu June 22, 2013 at 1:46 am

“If you’re talking about the Bush administration…”

Yep the right wasn’t worried at all when Bush was sending the IRS after his detractors. It’s kind of like the perpetual Martin Niemöller machine, this 8 years they come after the liberals, next 8 years they come after the right.

It helps in manufacturing consent.

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