Looking through a prism darkly: citizen-spy epistemology


So, this post is regarding the Prism program, and the phenomenon of mass-level metadata accumulation and pattern analysis that it represents. ProPublic has published an extremely useful timeline about how the United States intelligence community has developed to this point (such as we can know on the outside, given the high amount of top secret classification). Meanwhile, my colleague Joshua Foust (who has testified before Senate about over-classification and other problems in the intelligence industry — among other things, that it’s an industry), has published nine points about Prism that the public should think about. The most important are points #3, 7, and 8.

Joshua’s remarks border on the cynical, but nonetheless he is onto something. With respect to his last point, my job here is to explain about why this shouldn’t be a temporary outcry. And the explanatory methodology is simple (and I would say, spiritual). The consequences, however, are complex. (I) On the one hand, the citizen and the spy need to put themselves into each other’s shoes; and (II) on the other hand, the citizen needs to really understand what is being asked of him/her by the spy, but also why the spy shouldn’t be asking this of the citizen, either.

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Social leaking / social whistleblowing

I’m thinking over this story about the Facebook group plotting to overthrow the Turkmen government. I’ve already pondered the journalistic ethics about publishing it (“Did I just kill a revolution?”), but there are some really interesting aspect I want to take a moment to discuss.

In terms of the technology: first, this remarkable feature of modern communication applications to serve as a mirror for humanity, revealing ourselves to ourselves, blemishes and all; second, the darkside of this mirror, namely, its potential to turn against us and become a tool of self-oppression; and third — and this is the pat I want to focus on right now — is the way in which it’s making our civilization vastly more leaky and transparent.

Back in April I was interviewed by Dr. Suelette Dreyfus, an international expert on digital whistleblowing. We had a long conversation on the definition of “whistleblowing”, and it occurred to me that besides the traditional, Daniel Elsberg-style leak, or its Julian Assange update, there may now also be “social leaking” or “social whistleblowing”. This is essentially unintentional releasing of information by the rank-and-file of an organization that at an authority, whether it be cultural, governmental or corporate, would have preferred not to be released.

So, as I see it, such leaking may often take the emotional form of venting. For example, neweurasia‘s Annasoltan has recounted the following anecdote about two Turkmen apparatchiks:

“Once I met two Turkmen diplomats who behaved as though they were in a race with each other to expound on the great achievements of our president. But when one them went to the toilet, the other quickly made scandalous revelations about the government and seemed desperate to convince me that he despised the regime. Imagine: a diplomat, our nation’s representative to the outside world!”

Or, as in the case of this Facebook group, the various reactions of everyday people confronted with a terrifying new idea, namely, the downfall of their government. In this latter example, the outside world has learned something very important about the current collective mindset within Turkmenistan — something we could not have easily determined before:

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