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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Didja Ever Get the Feeling...You Was Bein' Watched?

Didja Ever Get the Feeling...You Was Bein' Watched?
Image © Austin Cline
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Fear continues to be the driving force in the policies of America's government. The differences in this regard between Obama and Bush seem to be minimal at best, though it's unclear how much of that is because there isn't enough difference in the men themselves and how much is because Obama simply hasn't made enough fundamental changes in how the government generally and the national security apparatus in particular operate. To be fair, these are changes that will take a lot of work and time because of how deeply ingrained fear has become.

What's more, even if Obama had made more extensive changes by now, we'd certainly still be seeing a raucous, fear-based reaction from conservatives that would probably end up driving the public narrative and debate anyway. Regardless of his intentions, I don't think Obama has enough force of personality to shift the media and the public away from their fears and towards a more positive outlook that relies on attitudes of self-confidence, self-empowerment, and rationality. It's American culture that needs to change in fundamental ways, not just American government.

Whose Interests Does Fear Serve?

I've already written numerous times here about how fear is being used by the government to expand its powers over us, and I don't want to repeat it all again. I'll just add that the new security measures enacted after the Christmas airplane bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab reveal in stark terms how the government uses public fear and uncertainty to enact policies which only serve to encourage more fear but which do nothing substantive to protect us. In addition to increasing our inconvenience and fear, all they do is create the impression that the government is doing something — and, more importantly, is needed to do something inconvenient and intrusive, otherwise we won't be safe.

What I'd like to point out here is just how counterproductive and useless it is to expand our national security state in the ways which proponents keep calling for. Regardless of whether it's intrusive security screenings at airports, video surveillance in the streets, or monitoring all communications, the actual security of the people is not enhanced. Instead, all that's accomplished is that the power of the state and those running it is secured. It's their interests which are being served, not ours, and isn't that what it's ultimately all about?

Airport Security

The pointlessness of the increased security measures in airports has long been obvious to everyone — not even the TSA can plausibly regard them as having any value. Poor military and security planners often make the mistake of only preparing for previous conflicts, but the TSA isn't even doing that correctly. Forcing everyone to remove their shoes wouldn't thwart a sophisticated terrorist and a wholly unsophisticated one got past them by simply moving the same bomb up their body a few feet.

Taking off our shoes only inconveniences us and gives the government something to do that is very public and dramatic. If the government wanted to do something that is actually effective, they'd take lessons from the only airline that doesn't have these problems but which is also the biggest target: El Al (and other airlines probably wouldn’t have to go as far as they do). Their procedures, though, are much less public and dramatic. They achieve real security for their passengers, not security and increased power for those in charge, so they are ignored.

Video Surveillance

Widespread video surveillance does little to nothing to prevent terrorism, as the people of London learned on 7/7. At best, the collection of video material aids in learning what happened after the fact, but that's small comfort to the victims. For the sake of so little gain in public security, the public in some cities are being monitored by multiple video cameras everywhere they go.

We don't need to look very far to see how such direct surveillance can negatively affect a society - the former East Germany provides a primary example. Edward N. Peterson wrote in his book The Secret Police and the Revolution: The Fall of the German Democratic Republic:

The SED tried to achieve security from what it saw as a hostile West and unreliable population by the maintenance of blanket surveillance, which meant another primary duty was to decide who got important jobs. The “Stasi State” was as much a massive system of vetting as it was an apparatus of persecution.

The very sense that the Stasi was watching served to atomize society, preventing independent discussion in all but the smallest groups. In this sense it was far from being a secret service and might best be described as the Party’s public scarecrow. Potential terror seemed as effective as real terror until 1989. The MfS was limited in its options, because after Hitler it was difficult to employ the death penalty; it was used little after the 1960s and then not for political opposition.

As external pressures hit the DDR the hardest, its security police became more aggressive, even though imprisonment rarely followed. Markus Wolf’s criticism: “Everyone who ever became suspected of doing anything in opposition was spied on. This is the core of the false security doctrine of the Ministry.” The information system had become so complex that it became inefficient; efforts to modify the system with computers were only beginning. “Tasks increased year to year and not only for state security. The demands for tightest conspiracy and independence, and the separation of each unit from another made an ending of the condition impossible.” This criticism was accepted by the man who replaced Mielke in November 1989, Dr. Wolfgang Schwanitz.

Obviously the parallel is inexact because widespread video surveillance isn't the same as widespread spying by an army of informers, but at the same time it's hard to argue that video monitoring everywhere is ultimately better or less corrosive. What's more, the American government has already tried to emulate the Stasi army once and can't be trusted not to do it again. Naomi Wolf writes in The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot:

TIPS was to begin with a pilot program in ten cities and offered citizens a toll-free number to call. The million citizens the program hoped to enlist would have worked out to one informant for every twenty-four Americans. (The ACLU notes that this pilot program alone would have doubled the Stasi's ratio of informant to citizen. In 1989, when the Stasi records were opened, the people of the former GDR were amazed to find that only a minority of citizens had actually been watched, because most had simply assumed they had open files on them. That is why surveillance is effective—even cost-effective: You don't have to actually monitor citizens—just let them know they might be monitored.)

Much if not most of the money used for video surveillance might be better spent on efforts that would both help prevent and help solve such crimes: direct human intelligence by working with relevant communities and getting close to suspects. This sort of basic police work isn't so public, though, and has to be narrowly targeted. Regardless of how effective it is, though, it wouldn't preserve or enhance the power of those in charge.

Communications Surveillance

That brings us to the sort of surveillance most people are familiar with: surveillance of our communications in email, the post, and telephone conversations. In some ways it's also the easiest for the government because with some basic technological tools, they can sit back and let the information just come to them. In other ways this is the worst for the government, though, because it results in massive amounts of information that is too expensive to even store properly, never mind sift through.

W.R. Smyser writes in From Yalta to Berlin: The Cold War Struggle Over Germany:

The SED further handicapped the East German economy by the resources that it committed to the Stasi. By the late 1980s, full-time Stasi employees had risen to 85,000, with another 200,000 paid spies and perhaps 1 to 2 million informers. The Stasi opened about 5 percent of all East German mail and routinely monitored all telephone calls and any other means of communication. It kept files on 6 million out of 16 million East Germans, perhaps half of the adult population, as well as on 2 million out of 60 million West Germans and on countless foreign visitors.

The Stasi grew to twice the size of Hitler’s Gestapo secret police but monitored a population only one-fifth as large. It also attracted universal hatred. All East Germans knew that any meeting or event that they might attend would include a sizable number of Stasi informants even if it had no conceivable political purpose. East Germans never said anything meaningful to any person they did not know and trust.

Informal estimates on the length of Stasi files ranged up to 160 kilometers (100 miles) of carefully collected and sorted material. No one has reliably calculated the proportion of East German gross domestic product spent on police and intelligence operations.

We couldn't possibly train enough people to sift through as much information as the government is capable of collecting today, and even if we could it wouldn't be possible for anyone to connect any of the dots they find. Indeed, that may have been part of the problem with the failed Christmas bombing: we had important information, but it may have been lost in a sea of useless information.

How much more will our government spend to pretend to keep us safe? I'm not sure, but I wonder how many people in the government realize that spending more and more money is actually furthering the interests of Al Qaeda as well. Ever since they turned their attention away from Middle Eastern governments towards the United States, their goal has always been to impose so much cost (money, blood, convenience) on us for being involved in the Middle East that we'd no longer think it's worth the effort and leave. This would leave those governments unprotected, allowing the Islamic extremists to more easily topple and replace them.

So when the government spends more on national security measures that don't create more security and impose more inconvenient restrictions on us that don't make us more safe, just remember that they are knowingly acting to further their own interests in expanding their power and perhaps unwittingly furthering the interests of the terrorists they claim to be protecting us from. At almost no point, however, are we ever really made safer.

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  1. Folks, if you think we are not becoming a "Stasi state", then google infraguard. I don't know about you, but it scares the hell out of me. Remember Franklin's quote, "Those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither". Thanks-James

  2. We don’t need to profile!

    We don’t need to profile. At the Center for Aggression Management, we use easily-applied, measurable and culturally-neutral body language and behavior exhibited by people who intend to perpetrate a terrorist act. This unique methodology utilizes proven research from the fields of psychology, medicine and law enforcement which, when joined together, identify clear, easily-used physiologically-based characteristics of individuals who are about to engage in terrorist activities in time to prevent their Moment of Commitment.

    Since the foiled terrorist attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian national on Northwest Flight 253 to Detroit, the President has repeatedly stated that there has been a systemic failure as he reiterates his commitment to fill this gap in our security. This incident, like the Fort Hood shooting, exemplifies why our government must apply every valid preventative approach to identify a potential terrorist.

    The myriad methods to identify a terrorist, whether “no-fly list,” “explosive and weapons detection,” mental illness based approaches, “profiling” or “deception detection” - all continue to fail us. Furthermore, the development of deception detection training at Boston Logan Airport demonstrated that the Israeli methods of interrogation will not work in the United States.

    All media outlets are discussing the need for profiling of Muslim Arabs, but profiling does not work for the following three reasons:

    1. In practice, ethnic profiling tells us that within a certain group of people there is a higher probability for a terrorist; it does not tell us who the next terrorist is!

    2. Ethnic profiling is contrary to the value our society places on diversity and freedom from discrimination based on racial, ethnic, religious, age and/or gender based criteria. If we use profiling it will diminish our position among the majority of affected citizens who support us as a beacon of freedom and liberty.

    3. By narrowing our field of vision, profiling can lead to the consequence of letting terrorists go undetected, because the terrorist may not be part of any known “profile worthy” group – e.g., the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh

    Our unique methodology for screening passengers can easily discern (independently of race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, age, and gender) the defining characteristics of human beings who are about to engage in terrorist acts.

    The question is when will our government use true “hostile intent” through the “continuum of aggressive behavior” to identify potential terrorists? Only when observers focus specifically on “aggressive behavior” do the objective and culturally neutral signs of “aggression” clearly stand out, providing the opportunity to prevent these violent encounters. This method will not only make all citizens safer, but will also pass the inevitable test of legal defensibility given probable action by the ACLU.

    As our Government analyzes what went wrong regarding Abdulmatallab’s entrance into the United States, you can be assured that Al Qaeda is also analyzing how their plans went wrong. Who do you think will figure it out first . . . ?

    Visit our blog at where we discuss the shooting at Fort Hood and the attempted terrorist act on Flight 253.

  3. Just the illusion that citizens are being surveilled constantly and ubiquitously ought to be enough to defray many potential attackers. I have a patch on all my windows that says my windows are protected by a well-known security company. I don't really need to be connected if potential invaders aren't aware that I might not be...

    The reason we see repeated every year in May the footage of the four students killed at Kent State University speaks to the advantages of a truly, thoroughly mediated society: You don't actually have to kill a lot of citizens to make the point; just keep reminding folks with the footage of the ones you did kill. Much more efficient, and less bloody, all around,...

  4. Our Corporate Oligarchy loves you and wants to protect you! Now go to the store and buy something.


  5. The surveillance issue functions the same as terrorism or corporal punishment: the implied threat. I disagree with The "little sticker" woody claims would deter most. The little sticker may give pause to a commom criminal, but a dedicated and determined individual will find a hole. Thats what they do. A terrist attack is, by nature a political action, not the same as a military action. To respond in a completely military fashion is a fool's game. I would suggest a cadre of political, diplomatic as well as military responses. The US "War on Terror" has been, to this point, ineffective and impotent because the US has not taken into consideration the goals of the terrorist act in any meaningful manner. The US paints the reasoning for AQ in base and easily comsumable sound bites directed to an uneducated and unsophistcated constituancy. The goal of AQ is to do to the US what we did to the USSR; brak the bank. And to that end we are allowing the US to do a bang up job. Ive tried to initiate discussions about a Marxist war but most are intellectually incapable or dismissive. The US is not economically infinite and all AQ has to do is wait, patiently and distribute a video every years or so. TS

  6. Let's not forget our growing police state. I respect the police overall; their job description can lead them to hell and back several times a week. However, the culture of "get them before they get you" is fear-based, and leads to homeless octogenarians getting Tased to death because they walked toward a police officer a little too fast with some unknown object in hand, which turned out to be a bottle of Ripple. Or 5-year-olds being hauled off to jail in handcuffs because they disrupted a class and didn't "freeze" when ordered to do so by an officer. C'mon, folks. Yes, it's a scary world out there but having survived into my second half-century of life without arming myself, I find it hard to believe that EVERYBODY is that gosh-darned dangerous.

  7. You ain't been surveilled until you've had a seat in the "B.O.S.S. Chair"! It stands for "Body Orifice Security Scanner." The company literature says it give you "Instantaneous, reliable non-instrusive scanning for small weapons or contraband metal objects carried in oral, anal or vaginal body cavities."

    It's used in English prisons to search for cellphones smuggled you-know-where. Looks kinda like an electric chair. As for how it works, well, you'd best read the company lit at the link...

    Soon to be coming to an airport security checkpoint near you! Hell, maybe it will be YOUR SEAT on the aeroplane. But only if you fly coach... Now THAT'S a way to stimulate sales of business-class tickets. Whilst the B.O.S.S. chair stimulates something else entirely.

  8. I had the opportunity to fly on El Al Airlines in the early eighties and was very impressed by their security, their professionalism and the smoothness with which they accomplished it all. There was no demeaning behavior, insults or attempts to treat anyone with the disrespect that our TSA people seem exhibit at every opportunity. They were well educated and professional and didn't act like nobodies suddenly given a gun and all the authority in the world and in your face with it. They had two people who approached me as I waited to board, asked to see my passport and then engaged me in casual conversation which pretty much covered it all, they knew me before I got on the plane and they also flew on the plane so their asses literally depended on their thoroughness. I distinctly remember that when I told them I lived in Cairo they wanted to know where and then asked me a very specific question about the neighborhood which I couldn't have known without living there, how they knew so much I still wonder?

    I don't recall if they interviewed everyone or just me because I was a foreigner, but they were very good and left me feeling confident not violated like our TSA people invariably leave me feeling. A little common sense would go such a long way. The last time I flew here in the U.S. I felt violated, pissed off, and uneccessarily insulted with the whole experience. I had forgotten and left my razor, a gillette Mach3, in my carry on which they kept without even a word to me that they had taken it. The damn things are expensive, but the worst thing was I didn't know it was gone until I went to use it the next morning and it wasn't there. What bull shit, the little blade is encased in plastic that would require a workshop to disassemble.

    Anyway, I don't support many of Israel's policies and I don't think I have seen so many hate filled people in one place, at one time, but they do know how to do security, I will say that and it was done oh, so much more professionally. I'm not saying they are all hateful, but certainly their policies toward Palestinians and Arabs in general couldn't be worse.

  9. Dear Comrade Clinefaroukislamsteinbergdorfmanhoff:

    Why is it that when the truth is right there in front of boobs like you, you can't see the garden for the broccoli rabe? FEAR is what the fear is for. It's a self regenerating resource. JESUS on a frackin' Ritz cracker!!

    I always drink a coupla bottles of magnesium citrate the day before any kind of travel--even if it's only to the corner store--just in case the Thugbooted Jacksuited Minions of State SeKKKurity want to have a look up my exit ramp, if you get my meaning.


We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.