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Surveillance, huh? What is it good for? – Paul Bernal

gchqEvidence seems to be mounting that mass surveillance isn’t actually very good at dealing with terrorism. Hot on the heels of the admission by the NSA that their mass surveillance of telephone call data had only been helpful in a single terrorism-related case, a detailed new report by the New America Foundation seems to suggest that their other surveillance programmes, including the PRISM programme, are also conspicuously ineffective.

It is not, of course, possible to draw hard and fast conclusions from these analyses. It is still very early days, and the very nature of the field means that information is hard to get, and that the authorities are (often entirely appropriately) unwilling to divulge many details. Nonetheless, the trend of the information appears to strongly suggest that mass surveillance does not really deal with terrorism very successfully.

This isn’t a great surprise to many of us working in the field of privacy and surveillance – it confirms what most of us have long suspected. It does, however, raise a great many questions, questions which the authorities responsible for the surveillance have seemed unwilling to acknowledge, let alone answer.

A waste of resources?

The first of these is if mass surveillance is ineffective at dealing with terrorism – as the evidence seems to be suggesting that it is – how many more terrorism plots could have been foiled if the enormous amount of money, time, effort and expertise that has been devoted to these programmes over the years had been put into other methods of counter-terrorism? There are other ways to work, and the authorities not only know this but they use these other methods. More ‘conventional’ intelligence work, for example, seems to have been more successful – indeed, it could scarcely have been less successful than the mass surveillance programmes. At a time of austerity, when everyone’s budgets are being squeezed, why are we spending so much on something that seems supremely inefficient and ineffective?

If not counter-terrorism, then what?

The intelligence services must know that these programmes don’t actually do much to counter terrorism. Whatever we think about them, they’re certainly no fools. If they don’t do what the authorities have been claiming, then why are the intelligence services so keen on mass surveillance? Is it, as has been suggested, that though they’ve done little to deal with terrorism so far that they’re some kind of ‘insurance policy’ against future terror issues? It’s not an entirely convincing suggestion – particularly when the way that resources could be reallocated something more efficient, and without such damaging side effects, is considered. The argument made that such a programme has to be successful only once to be worthwhile falls apart when you consider that wasting time and money on these programmes could have stopped you putting that time and money into something that would have stopped another attack.

Surveillance as control?

So, if it’s not about counter-terrorism, then what is it about, and why are the authorities unwilling to admit their reasoning? As I have argued before (for example here) though mass surveillance is unlikely to be very effective at dealing with terrorism it is much more effective at dealing with mass movements, with protest, with dissent. It can provide a degree of control over populations – partly through the way that it can be used to aggregate information, to monitor trends, to see what the masses are talking about, what online sites they’re visiting  and so forth, and partly because it enables that information to be used to actually manipulate people’s activities. Things like automated blocking of popular sites (perhaps using the kinds of mechanisms built into the ‘porn-filters’ currently being pushed by the UK governments) work well with surveillance to produce this kind of control.

Is this something that the intelligence agencies – or their political masters – would like to be able to do? It seems entirely likely, both from a theoretical perspective and when the history of the way that movements like anti-nuclear and environmental campaigns have been watched, infiltrated and undermined by both police and intelligence services. In some ways this is valid work – the border between peaceful protest and violent riots is at times blurred – but at times it certainly is not, and the idea of mass surveillance designed for this kind of thing is a far cry from mass surveillance to counter terrorism.

This may indeed be the clue to why, despite the increasing evidence that the effectiveness of mass surveillance as a counter-terrorism tool is limited at best, the authorities keep on putting it forward as justification. People are afraid of terrorism – and willing, it seems, to sacrifice a lot of deal with that fear. The message that we need to allow surveillance to deal with it is something that can be made to seem acceptable – particularly in the UK.

More evidence needed…

All the evidence discussed at the start of this post comes from the US – because in the UK we seem to be far, far too accepting of what we’re told by the authorities. The ‘public’ hearing of the Intelligence and Security Committee is all we’ve had, and it was an embarrassingly stage-managed exercise that told us nothing at all except that the Intelligence and Security Committee is neither willing nor capable of holding the intelligence services to account. That should not be acceptable. It is to our shame, in the UK, that we are not willing to ask the difficult questions of our intelligence services.  At present we have to rely on vague assurances and a general message that we should ‘trust’ them. That’s not enough – and as the evidence from the other side of the Atlantic builds that mass surveillance does not do what they have been telling us, we should be asking for more, and asking loudly and often.

Until they do provide that evidence, it is hard not to conclude that the surveillance systems have been built for something quite different from what they’re telling us. If that’s true, we should be asking even more questions – even harder ones.

This post was originally published on Paul Bernal’s Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks.

1 Comment

  1. Andy J

    Unfortunately this article fails to explore the fairly obvious alternative hypothesis that the intelligence services deliberately underplay the success of their methods precisely because they are successful and they do not want their targets to change their methods of cmmunication. The author appears to accept at face value the NSA’s ‘admission’ perhaps naively assuming that because they are a government body they won’t lie, or at least be economical with the truth.
    As the veteran CIA man James Angleton once said the battleground between intelligence and counter-intelligence is a wilderness of mirrors wherein you often need your enemy to believe the opposite of the truth.
    Once you introduce that proposition, you have the answer to the question “why are we spending so much on something that seems supremely inefficient and ineffective?”

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