The Blog

Prism Is Not the End of Democracy

Democracy is not a product. It is not a slickly-oiled advertising campaign. And it certainly does not have the advantages of combat with precise objectives and unquestioned orders. It is messy, hugely bureaucratic, mind-numbingly slow, and the only way we know to ensure that most people can mostly be free most of the time.

General Douglas Macarthur was reported to have rubbed his hands with glee when he heard the news that his old rival Dwight Eisenhower had been nominated for President. The Supreme Commander, he thought, was in for a shock when he got to the White House, began to bark orders and found that nothing happened.

Democracy is not a product. It is not a slickly-oiled advertising campaign. And it certainly does not have the advantages of combat with precise objectives and unquestioned orders. It is messy, hugely bureaucratic, mind-numbingly slow, and the only way we know to ensure that most people can mostly be free most of the time.

There seems to be a prickly, you-kids-get-off-my-lawn attitude that pervades the debate surrounding the leaking of information on the PRISM surveillance programme. Simon Jenkins says that Osama bin Laden would have loved the NSA spying scandal. I doubt he would, beyond the brief schadenfreude. Bin Laden wasn't in favour of regulated security agencies established by act of democratic parliament, even ones that embarrassedly slink back into the shadows when cornered. He was in favour of men with guns kicking down doors to ensure that fathers weren't teaching daughters how to read. Would the caliphate have had an NSA? No, it would have men on pickup trucks with machine-guns, and football stadiums used for public stonings, just like the Taliban did.

I get the reasons why people are angry about PRISM, and I feel solidarity with those on the left who feel betrayed. It enables a security state. It unfairly targets the vulnerable and minorities. It criminalises legitimate dissent. The government acts in cahoots with big business to manipulate people. I also feel some sympathy with those on the right who consider it symptomatic of a government that is just too big and that squanders resources on drag-netting that could be better focused on the real criminals and terrorists.

Politics has just gone loopy when the two media organisations making the greatest fuss about PRISM are The Guardian and Fox News. The media culture that produced the phone hacking scandal is now so ideologically and politically unsure of itself that one of the world's most-noted progressive media organisations is taking the same editorial line as one of the world's least. Right is right, and wrong is wrong, some retort. But a media culture that subjugates facts and ideology to sensationalism on such a regular basis deserves to have its coherence, and its motivations, questioned.

I live in a democracy, and I think that it is a good thing. I also happen to think that cock-up is a more common explanation than conspiracy, even when it comes to the security state. Obama, Cameron, Zuckerberg, whichever executive is most responsible for this mess should take responsibility. That is how democracies work. In exchange for power and a place in history, leaders take responsibility for huge, sprawling, organisations that are barely understood, let alone controlled.

To go to the extreme and assume as your starting-point that such data is being collected by an all-powerful elite to keep the little people down demonstrates a divorce from reality. Security agencies reacted to the problem of terrorists hiding among the general population on 9/11 and 7/7 by deciding that data was the best tool they had. Speaking as someone who has only basic knowledge of Excel, I can imagine that designing the algorithms necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff, and avoid stepping on anyone's toes, to be a fool's errand. Similarly, I can imagine that the equations Facebook and Google use become some of the most valuable pieces of intellectual property in the world, and that government's trying to save lives based on how well they fight the data war might have an interest in how those codes are put together.

Woody Allen once joked that our political leaders are both incompetent and corrupt, sometimes on the same day. We seem to have this cognitive dissonance by which we think we are both helpless pawns of the matrix at the same time as being governed by idiots and impotents. Which is it? The matrix implies a minimum standard of competence. Impotence implies the opposite. North Korea is bankrupt and barely able to feed itself, but it is ruled with an iron-grip. Would the Kims have been in power for sixty years if they had been a bit more hands-off?

Far from being concerned that the NSA is collecting 'metadata', people should be glad that intelligence agencies are targeting terrorists and criminals in a modern way. It goes without saying that intelligence no longer involves men in linen suits rendezvousing in exotic souks. With trillions of bytes of data from telephone, email and other electronic media floating around, the intelligence 'war' will be won or lost on a spreadsheet, not on a battlefield. The clue is in the title: metadata. It is the trends and outliers in metadata that are of interest to the spooks, not the details of your emails. So why are people so willing to ignore this distinction? A clever little algorithm will provide what intelligence agencies are looking for, there's no room full of people combing their way by hand through the quadrillions of emails out there.

There is a curious ideological alignment on privacy between fear of over-reach into your bedroom on the left, and into your wallet on the right. Both seem irrational on this issue, unable to see that they have aligned themselves with their ideological opposite against the mainstream who can't see why it's not possible to strike a balance between being safe and not being harassed.

It is worth pointing out too that whistle-blowers are always likely to receive a sympathetic hearing from the press. In these instances the line between acting in the national interest and providing a good story becomes hazy, especially for those viewing the world through the rose-tinted spectacles of increased circulation. Watergate was important. Daniel Ellsberg was important. Bradley Manning was important. This was all important stuff - and I am not detracting from the importance of Edward Snowden's revelations. But the dust has not settled sufficiently to judge the Obama administration as George Bush Mark II, or to judge Edward Snowden as a modern day Deep-Throat.

Upon leaking information on the PRISM programme to The Guardian, Edward Snowden flew to Hong Kong to go public because "they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent." Hong Kong: the place where unaccountable international capital meets Communist China. I don't doubt Snowden's sincerity, but such unilateral professions of moral arbitration seem reminiscent of the tedious melodrama of a narcissist incarcerating himself in the London Embassy of a country ranked 119th in the world for press freedom in order to protest about... press freedom.

People want to live in a world of transparency and trust. But trust works both ways. If you want safe streets and less violence, you have to trust that governments - democratic governments - are doing very undemocratic things only to those people who have explicitly broken the democratic contract. Democracy doesn't just mean freedom, it also means having to accept majority rule and trust that elected representatives will interpret our will within the parameters of the law. You can't just trust the government not to spy on you, the price of not living in a police state is a small but efficient security sector that may sometimes get things wrong.

The scandal here, so far as one exists, is the replacement of a quasi-legal, ad hoc and improperly regulated surveillance programme with one explicitly sanctioned by a so-called 'secret court' (that is a court whose proceedings are kept secret; the court's existence is openly acknowledged and established by Congress.) This is where sensible people, on both right and left, descend quickly into paranoia and conspiracy theory. It is not secret to escape scrutiny (all of the Court's records are available to the US Senate which has oversight) it is secret in the same way that other courts' proceedings are kept secret to protect certain individuals. Commercial and employment cases may be heard in closed session when evidence has market consequences. Custody or probate cases are subject to child protection issues. There is nothing wrong or suspicious, in principle, with certain courts being able to take evidence in closed session or in judges restricting reporting when appropriate.

Edward Snowden says that he doesn't want to live in a world where everything we do is recorded. Neither do I, but it depends on how we define 'recorded.' If it means men in smoky rooms listening to our conversations, then no, I don't want to be recorded. But if we are talking about a string of code trillions of digits long recording you as a zero rather than as a one, then I can't help but think that objecting to that is somewhat precious.

There are few details of my life that would really titillate or concern anyone else, and while I would consider it an imposition, it would qualify as rudeness rather than as a crime if they were to end up with someone other than I had given them to. There is a qualitative difference between such information and not sharing your bank details and other such data, precisely because that is information recognised as sensitive and protected by law. The fact that sensitive data is enumerated as such in several pieces of law, and specially protected as a result, is evidence for a general presumption of data openness, because openness relies on a minimum amount of trust that data not protected as such won't be abused.

Normal security activity in a democracy is not a violation, and there is little in the revelations to date to suggest that PRISM is engaging in anything other than the sort of activities people assumed security agencies were engaging in anyway. We seem to want our security professionals to find the needle in the haystack without disturbing any hay. There are real violations in the world, maybe including those committed by the NSA or GCHQ, but Google sharing your searches for LOLCATZ isn't one of them. This maelstrom of outrage, some justified, lots not, whereby lots of people are inconvenienced slightly, just obscures those instances of real injustice where people actually are oppressed. It also willfully confuses information, which we all have an interest in protecting, with data, which has value in a market sense, in a governance sense, and in a security sense. We undermine that value at our peril.

President Obama met Premier Xi of China last week to discuss how to avoid an actual war on the Korean Peninsula, one that could drag America and China in with it. Top of the agenda was cyber-security, at which China is ever-better at getting around. The Obama administration briefed that strong hints would be dropped that the country that produced Microsoft, Google and Facebook might be quite good at designing cyber-attacks of its own if the dogs were let off the leash. I hope that those dogs will stay on their leash, because of the implications for what will happen when cyber wars become actual wars and human beings and not data are the targets. Until then, it might be an idea to become gently more at-ease with the information society.

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