Looking through a prism darkly: citizen-spy epistemology

prism

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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Wiki-Orwellianism

Could transparency be used as a tool of oppression? The idea occurred to me soon after filing my most recent blog post with RFE/RL on the latest — and scariest — WikiLeaks spawn, Porn WikiLeaks.

What strikes me about Porn WikiLeaks is that it appears to essentially be the community of the pornography industry turned upon itself, as one vigilante ex-member seeks to expose the private identities of the industry’s pseudonymous actors and actresses. Many men and women have taken recourse to stints in front of the camera to pay for university or just put food on the table.

So, what’s at stake here are normal people — lawyers, doctors, teachers and home makers — with real reputations to lose, which is why the institution of the pseudonym is so important (society’s own double-standard of using the product but condemning the producer is the crucial factor to this sad reality, but that’s a topic for another blog post). This is counter to the logic of the original WikiLeaks, which Guy Rundle eloquently explains thus:

WikiLeaks has never been about an unedited, unconsidered process. Assange has argued that the degree of power exercised and the right to leak should also be considered in implicitly mathematical terms: total power licenses total exposure; zero power implies a total right to personal privacy. Such an ethic presumably lies across the boundary of a single life – the personal circumstances of someone in power should not be fair game for leaking, unless the circumstances of that private life are generating corrupt activities.

But here’s the really disturbing catch: besides the fact that Porn WikiLeaks’ webmaster may have had some help from inside the industry in terms of gathering the basic profile data of over 23,756 individuals that serves as the foundation of the site’s database, the deeply private data that he’s also accruing — from photographs of residences and family members to phone numbers — is most likely coming from colleagues and otherwise normal people like you and me, i.e., neighbors, supposed friends and other acquaintances. In other words, emphasis here is on the Wiki part of the site’s name.

On one level, the whole enterprise is sickeningly masturbatory: Porn WikiLeaks is itself pornographic, for the site essentially applies crowdsourcing to voyeurism. On another even more disturbing level, for me the site constitutes nothing less than Wiki-Orwellianism, that is to say, crowdsourcing used as a means to invade privacy. That’s profoundly worrying because this is a methodology that could be put to authoritarian ends. Imagine: what if the East German secret police had access to today’s Internet technology, and one day simply decided to publish their vast database of the citizenry’s private lives as a mass-readable/mass-editable Wikipedia-like website?

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