Thursday, August 22, 2013

David Miranda and the Preclusion of Privacy

Updated Below

I think it's obvious to any reasonable observer that the UK authorities detained David Miranda, spouse of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, to intimidate journalists and whistleblowers -- to "send a message," as Greenwald put it.  But I also think there's something more going on.

Put yourself in the shoes of the National Surveillance State (given the kind of US/UK cooperation involved in Miranda's detention, we could as easily call it the International Surveillance State).  In collusion with US telcos, you've succeeded in commandeering the Internet, and are able to monitor at least 75% of American Internet activity.  Further such monitoring represents opportunities for improved coverage only at the margins, and because people are now changing their Internet behavior to evade government eavesdropping, you realize you have to turn your attention to emerging attempts at privacy.  You will have to focus especially on journalists, the fourth estate:  as Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has observed, "The Guardian's work on the Snowden story has involved many individuals taking a huge number of flights in order to have face-to-face meetings.  Not good for the environment, but increasingly the only way to operate.  Soon we will be back to pen and paper."

Under these circumstances, if you were the NSA, and you learned -- say, by examining passenger manifests and customs data -- that Glenn Greenwald's spouse was traveling from the couple's home in Rio to Berlin, currently the home of Laura Poitras, Greenwald's collaborator on the blockbuster Snowden revelations, what would you do?

You might reasonably suspect that the spouse, trusted by both parties, was helping Greenwald and Poitras in some fashion with their reporting.  If you dug into credit card transactions and learned the Guardian was paying for the spouse's travel, your suspicions would harden.  You might decide to place a call to your contacts at Britain's GCHQ, mentioning to them that a certain Brazilian national would soon be transiting Heathrow en route from Berlin to his home in Rio, and recommending ever so artfully that this Brazilian national be detained, all his electronic gear confiscated, his personal passwords revealed to you under the threat of imprisonment (yes, the UK airport authorities really can legally imprison you if you don't tell them your Facebook password.  They have to, to keep you safe).

Of course you wouldn't formally direct the UK authorities to do anything; you'd want to maintain the ability to obscure your involvement without outright lying about it if possible.  And of course you might not even be sure the spouse would be carrying anything secret at all, but intercepting secret information wasn't really the purpose of the exercise anyway.  The purpose was to demonstrate to journalists that what they thought was a secure secondary means of communication -- a courier, possibly to ferry encrypted thumb drives from one air-gapped computer to another -- can be compromised, and thereby to make the journalists' efforts harder and slower.

Does this sort of "deny and disrupt" campaign sound familiar?  It should:  you've seen it before, deployed against terror networks.  That's because part of the value in targeting the electronic communications of actual terrorists is that the terrorists are forced to use far slower means of plotting.  The NSA has learned this lesson well, and is now applying it to journalists.  I suppose it's fitting that Miranda was held pursuant to a law that is ostensibly limited to anti-terror efforts.  The National Surveillance State understands that what works for one can be usefully directed against the other.  In fact, it's not clear the National Surveillance State even recognizes a meaningful difference.

The National Surveillance State doesn't want anyone to be able to communicate without the authorities being able to monitor that communication.  Think that's too strong a statement?  If so, you're not paying attention.  There's a reason the government names its programs Total Information Awareness and Boundless Informant and acknowledges it wants to "collect it all" and build its own "haystack" and has redefined the word "relevant" to mean "everything."  The desire to spy on everything totally and boundlessly isn't even new; what's changed is just that it's become more feasible of late.  You can argue that the NSA's nomenclature isn't (at least not yet) properly descriptive; you can't argue that it isn't at least aspirational.

To achieve the ability to monitor all human communication, broadly speaking the National Surveillance State must do two things:  first, button up the primary means of human communication -- today meaning the Internet, telephone, and snail mail; second, clamp down on backup systems, meaning face-to-face communication, which is, after all, all that's left to the population when everything else has been bugged.  Miranda's detention was part of the second prong of attack.  So, incidentally, was the destruction of Guardian computers containing some of Snowden's leaks.  The authorities knew there were copies, so destroying the information itself wasn't the point of the exercise.  The point was to make the Guardian spend time and energy developing suboptimal backup options -- that is, to make journalism harder, slower, and less secure.

A heart beset by coronary disease will begin to recruit secondary arteries to carry oxygenated blood.  If you're the NSA, you recognize you have to block those developing secondary routes, too, or you'll lose control of the flow you feed on.  To the National Surveillance State, therefore, coverage of Miranda's treatment at Heathrow isn't a bug.  It's a feature.  And why not?  The authorities want you to understand they can do it to you, too.  Whether they've miscalculated depends on how well they've gauged the passivity of the public.

Updated:  Part 2 is here.


shugyosha said...

As a general rule, I do not trust reporters either. Nor do I, any longer, consider them special recipients of rights. I worry because someone was detained on, at best, flimsy reasoning, not because he's related to a newswriter. Mr. Miranda has rights (heh; see later) because he's a person, not because he's Mr. Greenwald's husband.

Reporters had their privileges, but as a profession, as Greenwald himself used to report [*], they've been falling short of their own ideals for a while. Of course, now they get the Niemöller treatment. Cry me a river. If they had done their jobs, they wouldn't be there. Where the F'ing rest of us have been for a while [imagine that in screaming caps]. But, of course, it's good to be at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Too good, apparently.

Because they'll protest, but they'll be there at the next government sponsored event and press conference, duly respectful. Hat in goddamn hand.

And also, what I find ironic of the case is, actually, Mr. Miranda's surname. Imagine a headline: "Miranda rights denied".

Also, on a slightly unrelated subject (but bear with me): I've found, in recent Spanish politics, how more or less formal associations are sidestepping the classical politics machine. It's making institutions nervous and, also, clumsy. Among other things, they really don't have things in place to properly gauge the influence of those. The main party had been claiming for a while that democracy should be limited to voting.

And meanwhile, their support crumbles. Politicians or news writers? Yes.

Let's see how interesting these times get.


[*] I stopped following him years ago, when he moved his blog to Salon. I suppose he still does, but...

Sam Brasel said...

I believe this analysis is a bit more complex than what is actually going on. The US natsec community desperately, feverishly wants to get Ed Snowden and without any further delay. They want him in their pre-trial custody and then in a prison for 25-35 years post-trial. They want all the materials he has, they want to know who his yet-unknown collaborators are, they want to know everything about how he did what he did, and they want to deter future natsec whistleblowers. Yes, of course, Miranda's detention "sent a message" and all that, but that was just a side-benefit. It's still all about Snowden. The natsec community MUST have him in their custody. NOW NOW NOW.

Richard said...

Very nice summary. I think it also has a lot to do with the current climate in our respective governments. It is a bit like the old kid's story "If you give a mouse a cookie..." and they have been slowly getting away with all of this for years now. What is more interesting is that with all of these revelations NOTHING has changed and they are continuing to escalate this surveillance. Also, don't forget all of the "terrorists" recently captured in the US have been coerced into committing terrorist acts by the US government itself and then they are so proud to have stopped something they started in the first place. All of this is very Kafkaesque.

Unknown said...

What Sam said. Their paranoia is about as complex as a wasps nest. Threaten it, and the wasps will attack anything close by, without much thinking or logic. The hive must be protected at all costs.

tomthereporter said...

Excellent piece, Mr. Eisler.

Anonymous said...

you presuppose that the government actions are 100% rational and intelligent - in other words, that there is some bright mastermind behind the national security machinery that sets in motion and coordinates the intelligence agencies in US and UK, to do what is in in their best interest. It may come to that in the end - but so far the impression from Snowden/Greenwald affair is that the various government officials are a pathetic bunch of clowns, desperate to come up with some meaningful response after the Snowden train has already left the station. The really scary thing about surveillance state is not that the government is so good at doing surveillance but that is incredibly stupid, incompetent and corrupt to wield this kind of intrusive power - and everything that came to light due to the NSA leaks seems to confirm it.

PBI said...

Excellent post, Barry.

To respond to some of the other comments here, I don't think this is a case of a monolithic, over-arching attempt to manage communication channels by a single entity.

Rather, what Barry is describing is now standard operating procedure for multiple agencies and governments. With the same set of (shared) learnings under their belts, it doesn't matter if it's a single, unified effort or not. Multiple, independent or quasi-independent groups all using the same principles will produce the same result.

Miles Digby said...

Excellent blog posting. We need many more people explaining what is happening in easy to understand language.

My wife asked "what is going to come from all this lawbreaking?". I had just read your book "The Detachment", I said either nothing because people don't want to be bothered or everything. I really hope your book was not right on the money. Up to now it has been a great prediction book.

Tom Clancy said in a book (fictional),a Japanese passenger jet would be flow into the World Trade Center,after USA & Japan almost went to war! He was hailed as a all seeing foreign policy god after 9/11/01.

I find it curious no one brings up your book "The Detachment".

I also the saw movie "Canadian Bacon" again last night. That is a bit more of what we are doing declaring cold war on ourselves, SO THE TERRORIST DON'T WIN!

My cousin who was my best friend, was murdered on American Air flight 11, (first to hit the WTC towers) on 09/11/01. So I consider myself very serious on stopping terrorism. I have seen what it can do to a family.

Thanks for your great writing Mr. Eisler.

Mark F. said...

Fillerzine (and Sam): I really like your metaphor of a wasps nest. To me, that rings very true.

But I don't think Barry's wrong. This "deny and disrupt" campaign is what they've been doing for years against terror suspects. They've been preparing for this and practicing this. (Miranda was detained under an anti-terrorism law, after all.)

All you have to do is conflate "journalist" with "terrorist", and an angry emotional response can follow a well-rehearsed plan.


Erik Dolson said...

Beware the security-technology complex, the spawn of the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned of 50 years ago.

Hiding behind facades built of threat and promises, they analyze what you buy, what you read, what you drive, where you live and where you go. They use sophisticated tools to learn what you think, then tailor information you receive to create perceived danger and offer managed solutions.

They herd you behind fences of fear, corral you with a tight focus on “message,” and quickly respond if you get out of line. They feast on the heart of what our founding fathers worked so hard to achieve.

Ambon Pereira said...

1)If the war on drugs taught us anything, it's that a legal/legislative precedent conferring tremendous special powers to the gov't/law enforcement can be expanded and abused with impunity, without any real consequences: --of course there's a hornet's nest of vengefulness (many angry WASPs) but the precedent of journalists and their associates "being forced to divulge" passwords, may become a regular tactic of disruption/intimidation if insufficiently challenged.
2)information/network theory: consider Greenwald as the major node/hub of an entire web of critical discourse: how will you disrupt the web? isolate; polarize; drown him in noise; label him a "lawless" person (thereby dampening the major thrust of his criticism, which consists of drawing attention to the lawlessness of u.s. gov't agencies)
3)Hypothetically I pity whomever might be/or has been given the job of implementing the polarization and noise strategies, for example via "sock-puppet" avatars, in various comment/facebook/twitter forums. Believe it could only be bad for the psyche/soul to spend your days deliberately spreading rancor and confusion. Although perhaps the game is structured so as to provide the puppets with keywords or talking points which they are expected to promote-- IE, "Greenwald is a lawless actor"-- which I suppose would benefit the puppets' psyche, insofar he or she is acting to accomplish a very specific mission, according to direct orders from an immediate superior. But I'm probably over-thinking this, as for most people a job is just a job, without the luxury of moral romanticism that we might find in, say, Das Leben der Anderen.