Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

"Guarded openness..."

... is John Reid's new buzzword, according to a story in The Register about his recent speech to the surveillance industry. As far as I can gather from ten minutes on google, it was a term first used in this context by a couple of US military strategists (insert your Iraq-related joke here) in 1996, the idea being that you try to keep your society open with regards to some ideas whilst remaining guarded about anything that might effect security. Like all useful national security phrases of late ("...till the job's done", anyone?), this one's semantically vague enough that it can be expanded to mean virtually anything. Indeed, many commentators use it to describe China's internet policy, which is obviously a model of where we'd want society to be going.

That might seem a rather harsh analogy - Reid hasn't yet tried to stop anyone reading about Tiannamen Square - but read the whole story and it's not that far off what he's got in mind. In spite of the fact that the UK is already the world's most surveyed nation, with a security camera for every fifteen people, Reid is begging for more of the same, calling on the private sector to redouble its efforts to keep us at the front of a spying-on-your-own-citizens arms race, and for the pubic to get behind it in a "renew[al] of the social contract" (I'm not making this up). This redoubling, of course, takes place with the help of massive public subsidies.

Now, a lot of people are inclined to say, "Fair enough. I don't actually fancy being blown to small pieces on my way into work, and if some of my taxes go towards helping some private business come up with the gizmo that's going to stop it, I guess that's just the way it's got to be." These people are idiots. The whole point of terrorist operations like the 7/7 bombings is that the planning and execution of them takes place on a tiny, private scale (private conversations, with friends, about sensitive matters), and that they're done by people the government has no reason to suspect. So guarding against that involves surveying everyone on the most intimate, private scale possible. Obviously this is an ever-expanding process, because as the surveillance gets more invasive, aspiring terrorists have to keep their dealings ever more private in order to avoid capture. John Reid says it's a "struggle that will be long, wide and deep." No shit! As far as I can see it only ends when the government knows what everyone in the country is doing for every second of every day.

Now, I don't actually believe the government wants to go that far and, the odd paranoia attack aside, I'm not sure it could manage it even if it wanted to. But the logical conclusion of that is that it ain't gonna stop terrorist attacks through more surveillance. So if they know they're fighting a losing battle, why the massive expansion of state surveillance in the first place? Well a couple of reasons spring to mind. The first is that the Home Office has a lot of other head-aches that it might see surveillance as a cure for: immigration and crime spring to mind (because privatisation worked so well on the prisons). More charitably, there's also just the fact that, evem if they don't think they can stop attacks through surveillance, they must be seen to doing something and so this is all just a big exercise in re-arragning the shop window. The last explanation, and the one that The Register seems to like, is good old fashioned capture of government by private interests.

Since the end of the Cold War, the arms industry has been looking for a new way to suckle at the teat of the state, and the "War on Terror" seems to have provided it with a way. This is most obviously seen with Halliburton in Iraq, but there's a lot of ways short of all-out pandamonium in the Middle East that a business can benefit from a perceived security crisis. One of these has been the fear of domestic terrorism, and arms companies have been running a side-line in surveillance of civillian populations for some time now. They even have their own official representation in the EU, the European Security Research Advisory Board, which seems to be mainly about advising that more money should be given to private business for security research. If Dr. Reid's pronouncements are anything to go by, they seem to be very good at doing it...


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