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The Internet Superhighway to Serfdom

November 2, 2011 by and tagged , ,

As I have argued before, web 2.0 technologies have extended the reach and depth of the surveillance society, as public-private partnership. In that sense, I’m a cyber-crank of the Morozov kind. But my analysis of this is only confirmed by what transpires in the a variety of source.

First, someone actually used the term feudalism, which kinda gave me the idea for the title, even though I have wanted to use it for a while as a way of thumbing my nose at the libertarian crowd.

Anyhoo:

“To use Google+ and Facebook, people yoke themselves to the providers by handing over their data in exchange for use of the services. It’s like a feudal system: the social-networking companies are sustained by the data flooding into them, and gain in power from the exchange. People upload their photos, their messages and other data from their personal life, but the service providers control how that information is presented to the world.

“The users contribute their own content to you for free. You sell it back to them with banner ads put on there. And on top of that, you spy on them to gather profiling data,” says Michiel de Jong, of the Unhosted project to decentralise user data.

Compare this with feudal lords in the Middle Ages — ‘the castles’ — who took in taxes in the form of wheat, cattle and other resources, consumed them and then demanded more. The castles held all the political power and could talk to other castles, while the peasants who lived on their land had little influence, even though the resources they produced kept the castles going.

The online form of feudalism is more insidious. With Google and Facebook, the resources these castles take in — images and search terms, for example — are not used up, as they were in the original system. Instead, the data is analysed again and again, and the castle grows in power with each bite of information.

(…)

What makes this modern feudalism powerful is that the key parties are keeping their methods of control from the users.”

That is for the private side of things. On the public side, Morozov’s fears seem to come true as government get savvier as using web 2.0 technologies for their own purposes (and that is not exactly good for democracy, transparency and dissent).

Case in point, Top Secret America:

Part 1:

Watch Top Secret America on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Part 2:

Watch Top Secret America on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Part 3:

Watch Top Secret America on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Part 4:

Watch Top Secret America on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Welcome to the Panopticon 2.0 (I have wanted to use that one for a long time as well but it does fit).

And where public and private meet, expect massive and militarized expansion of surveillance mechanisms, applied to the civil society, all in the name of security:

“Even most members of Congress are unaware of the extent to which both the military and intelligence community have come to depend on private contractors to provide the software and ingenuity necessary for both conventional and information warfare in the 21st century. In 2005, experts estimated that 30% of the US intelligence budget was being outsourced, and this intelligence contracting industry has grown markedly since.

On the surface, this practice makes sense; the modern military tends not to attract sufficient technical talent for its needs, and in a few notable cases, the once-legendary hackers who run crucial firms have felony convictions that would prevent them from doing equivalent work from inside the state. Meanwhile, competition for projects promotes the incubation of new and more powerful capabilities from within the industry, and the bidding system ensures that the US gets the best of these for the least money – at least, in theory.

But as evidenced by the drone virus affair and other, more serious incidents, the overall contracting process is deeply flawed. The “free market” competition for contracts that would otherwise bring gains is corrupted by the industry’s thorough overlap with its state customers. Former Department of Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff joined the board of directors of contractor BAE Systems ahead of that firm being awarded a $270m contract last week, followed by another US Army contract for $67m; before bringing on the well-connected ex-secretary, the firm was becoming notorious for losing such crucial business.

A glance at the boards and executive listings of similar firms, replete with former military officers and government officials, reveals the revolving door that connects potential clients with a state customer for which money is no object, such money being taxed from an electorate too distracted by other offenses to notice.

(…)

This familiar tendency on the part of the US government to spend money it doesn’t have on things it doesn’t get is now directed at developing procedures it shouldn’t use. The intelligence contracting industry, which includes firms that provide security applications to the entire US government and military, has been encouraged lately to direct more of its collective time and capabilities to the task of monitoring, misinforming and sometimes outright attacking American citizens and others abroad – and benefit from the protection of the state and the incompetence of the media in order to make such attacks with impunity.

The Team Themis affair, which united three such firms to go after journalists, activists and WikiLeaks was revealed by Anonymous earlier this year thanks to the seizure of 70,000 emails from coordinating firm HBGary Federal. The little-known and sinister persona management capability – a state-sponsored “sockpuppet” propaganda program – has been found in widespread development; the National Security Agency-linked Endgame Systems has been revealed to offer comprehensive offensive cyber capabilities, with targets in place, to customers other than the US government; a few months ago, I released a report on a worrying surveillance apparatus known as Romas/COIN.

The shift from infrastructure defense to surveillance and offensive capability comes in the wake of the Chinese-orchestrated Aurora attacks against US state and corporate targets – an operation that continues to reveal itself as even more damaging than initially thought as additional targets admit theft of crucial data. The problem with the changing priorities of the US’s cyber-contractor complex are two-fold: by neglecting government systems’ vulnerabilities – and the drone virus provides a perfect instance – the state loses face with adversaries, real or potential, who respect only force; and by treating its own citizenry as the leading threat to its security, it loses the loyalty of those who respect truth and the rule of law.”

The legitimation crisis is a topic I have discussed here repeatedly but it is an important feature of the post-2008 political arena and of what I have come to call the new sociopathy. Combine that to the very real militarization of law enforcement on the ground and you have the ingredients for major social disturbance in reaction to the loss of authority (in the Weberian sense of legitimate power) of the state, see as the coercive arm of corporate entities and a wealthier oligarchy.

And our fear of cybercrime, cyberterrorism or privacy-shattering hackers should not make us forget this:

“In a luxury Washington, DC, hotel last month, governments from around the world gathered to discuss surveillance technology they would rather you did not know about. The annual Intelligence Support Systems (ISS) World Americas conference is a mecca for representatives from intelligence agencies and law enforcement. But to the media or members of the public, it is strictly off limits.

Gone are the days when mere telephone wiretaps satisfied authorities’ intelligence needs. Behind the cloak of secrecy at the ISS World conference, tips are shared about the latest advanced “lawful interception” methods used to spy on citizens – computer hacking, covert bugging and GPS tracking. Smartphones, email, instant message services and free chat services such as Skype have revolutionised communication. This has been matched by the development of increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology.

Among the pioneers is Hampshire-based Gamma International, a core ISS World sponsor. In April, Gamma made headlines when Egyptian activists raided state security offices in Cairo and found documents revealing Gamma had in 2010 offered Hosni Mubarak’s regime spy technology named FinFisher. The “IT intrusion” solutions offered by Gamma would have enabled authorities to infect targeted computers with a spyware virus so they could covertly monitor Skype conversations and other communications.

The use of such methods is more commonly associated with criminal hacking groups, who have used spyware and trojan viruses to infect computers and steal bank details or passwords. But as the internet has grown, intelligence agencies and law enforcement have adopted similar techniques.

(…)

Another company that annually attends ISS World is Italian surveillance developer Hacking Team. A small, 35-employee software house based in Milan, Hacking Team’s technology – which costs more than £500,000 for a “medium-sized installation” – gives authorities the ability to break into computers or smartphones, allowing targeted systems to be remotely controlled. It can secretly enable the microphone on a targeted computer and even take clandestine snapshots using its webcam, sending the pictures and audio along with any other information – such as emails, passwords and documents – back to the authorities for inspection. The smartphone version of the software has the ability to track a person’s movements via GPS as well as perform a function described as “remote audio spy”, effectively turning the phone into a bug without its user’s knowledge. The venture capital-backed company boasts that its technology can be used “country-wide” to monitor more than 100,000 targets simultaneously, and cannot be detected by anti-virus software.

(…)

Concerns remain, however, that despite export control regulations, western companies have been supplying high-tech surveillance software to countries where there is little or no legislation governing its use. In 2009, for instance, it was reported that American developer SS8 had allegedly supplied the United Arab Emirates with smartphone spyware, after about 100,000 users were sent a bogus software update by telecommunications company Etisalat. The technology, if left undetected, would have enabled authorities to bypass BlackBerry email encryption by mining communications from devices before they were sent.

Computer security researcher Jacob Appelbaum is well aware what it is like to be a target of covert surveillance. He is a core member of the Tor Project, which develops free internet anonymising software used by activists and government dissidents across the Middle East and north Africa to evade government monitoring. A former spokesman for WikiLeaks, Appelbaum has had his own personal emails scrutinised by the US government as part of an ongoing grand jury investigation into the whistleblower organisation. On 13 October he was in attendance at ISS World where he was planning to give a presentation about Tor – only to be ejected after one of the surveillance companies complained about his presence.

(…)

Jerry Lucas, the president of the company behind ISS World, TeleStrategies, does not deny surveillance developers that attend his conference supply to repressive regimes. In fact, he is adamant that the manufacturers of surveillance technology, such as Gamma International, SS8 and Hacking Team, should be allowed to sell to whoever they want.

“The surveillance that we display in our conferences, and discuss how to use, is available to any country in the world,” he said. “Do some countries use this technology to suppress political statements? Yes, I would say that’s probably fair to say. But who are the vendors to say that the technology is not being used for good as well as for what you would consider not so good?”

Would he be comfortable in the knowledge that regimes in Zimbabwe and North Korea were purchasing this technology from western companies? “That’s just not my job to determine who’s a bad country and who’s a good country. That’s not our business, we’re not politicians … we’re a for-profit company. Our business is bringing governments together who want to buy this technology.”"

That’s nice.

Although this does not need to be so complicated since our phone companies and ISPs are more than willing to provide our data to a variety of agencies. But in this mix of Panopticon and capillary surveillance, it is the global civil society that is the biggest loser.

So, it is logical that some of the resistance to this come from the civil society as well:

“Computer networks proved their organizing power during the recent uprisings in the Middle East, in which Facebook pages amplified street protests that toppled dictators. But those same networks showed their weaknesses as well, such as when the Egyptian government walled off most of its citizens from the Internet in an attempt to silence protesters.

That has led scholars and activists increasingly to consider the Internet’s wiring as a disputed political frontier.

For example, one weekend each month, a small group of computer programmers gathers at a residence here to build a homemade Internet—named Project Byzantium—that could go online if parts of the current global Internet becomes blocked by a repressive government.

(…)

He is not the only one with such apprehensions. Next month The­Doctor will join hundreds of like-minded high-tech activists and entrepreneurs in New York at an unusual conference called the Contact Summit. One of the participants is Eben Moglen, a professor at Columbia Law School who has built an encryption device and worries about a recent attempt by Wisconsin politicians to search a professor’s e-mail. The summit’s goal is not just to talk about the projects, but also to connect with potential financial backers, recruit programmers, and brainstorm approaches to building parallel Internets and social networks.

The meeting is a sign of the growing momentum of what is called the “free-network movement,” whose leaders are pushing to rewire online networks to make it harder for a government or corporation to exert what some worry is undue control or surveillance. Another key concern is that the Internet has not lived up to its social potential to connect people, and instead has become overrun by marketing and promotion efforts by large corporations.”

And we are back full circle as the activists want to create a bazaar 2.0 to fight the new feudalism:

“One organizer of the Contact Summit, Douglas Rushkoff, compares the disruptive power of the Internet to the impact of bazaars in the Middle Ages.

In his latest book, Program or Be Programmed (OR Books), he argues that the earliest bazaars helped transform feudal society by allowing vigorous information sharing—a low-tech peer-to-peer network. “Everyone was speaking with everybody else, and about all sorts of things and ideas,” he writes. “All this information exchange allowed people to improve on themselves and their situations,” allowing craftsmen to form guilds and share techniques. “As the former peasants rose to become a middle class of merchants and crafts­people, they were no longer dependent on feudal lords for food and protection.”

The Internet has created a bazaar 2.0, says Mr. Rushkoff, accelerating information exchange and giving people the power to organize in new ways.”

As some famous sociologist would say, we have never been modern.

Posted in Networks, Surveillance Society, Technology | 1 Comment »



One Response to “The Internet Superhighway to Serfdom”

  1.   Todd Says:

    I love “Panopticon 2.0″ For those in the know, it’s concise, foreboding and firghtening. For those not in the know, “google that sh!t,” as they say.

    Reply

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