Closing the Internet

A lot of my current thinking is based around the dynamic of opening / closing. I’ve been considering the way in which elements of state power, and in particular the military and intelligence agencies, regard openness per se as a threat. Now, Wired’s Threat Level blog (just about my favourite reading right now), has an excellent take on the response to what has been termed (in a deliberately mixed-up phrase) the ‘open-source insurgency’. This  is the way in which the ex-head of US intelligence, now working for ‘contractor’*, Booz Allen Hamilton, Michael McConnell. is promoting the re-engineering of the Internet. This is necessary, it is argued, because the current openness of the Net means that terrorists and criminals can flourish. This re-engineering would make attribution, geo-location, intelligence analysis and impact assessment — who did it, from where, why and what was the result — more manageable”. In other words to close the Internet. remove everything that is innovative and democratic about it, and make it easier for agencies like the NSA to monitor it.

Along with a whole raft of measures like extending ‘lawful access’ regimes, introducing corporate-biased copyright and anti-peer-2-peer legislation, censorship and Net filtering, this is an attack on what the Internet has become and to turn it into something simply for consumption – something, in other words, more like television. But there is another layer here too – the US military, I suspect, still has a nostalgic longing for when the Internet was its private domain. It’s a long way from its origins, and now perhaps the military want it back. But it isn’t theirs anymore, it’s ours and we need to fight for it.

* or, more accurately, arm’s length consulting agency of the US state.

Where Will the Big Red Balloons Be Next?

The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched a $40,000 competition ostensibly to see examine the way communication works in Web2.0. The competition will see whether disributed teams working together online can uncover the location of large red weather balloons moored across the USA.

The ‘DARPA Network Challenge’ “will explore the roles the Internet and social networking play in the timely communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems”.

All the headlines for this story have been verging on the amused (even The Guardian). Words like ‘whimsical’ and ‘wacky’ have been common. But it seems to me that this project has many underlying aims apart from those outlined in these superficial write-ups, not least of which are: how easily people in a culture of immediate gratification can be mobilised to state aims and in particular to do mundane intelligence and surveillance tasks (following the failure of simple old style rewards to work in the tracking down of Osama Bin Laden and other such problems), and 2, the prospects for manipulating ‘open-source intelligence’ in a more convenient manner, i.e. distributing military work and leveraging (a word the military loves) a new set of assets  – the online public, which is paradoxially characterised by both an often extreme scepticism and paranoia, but at the same time, a general superficiality and biddability.

DARPA, of course, was one of the originators of the Internet in the first place (as it continues to remind us), but the increasingly ‘open’ nature of emergent online cultures has meant that the US military now has a chronic anxiety about the security threats posed not so much by overt enemies as by the general loss of control – in fact, there’s been talk for a while of an ‘open-source insurgency’, a strategic notion that in one discursive twist elides terrorism and the open-source / open-access movement, and the CIA has recently bought into firms that specialize in Web 2.0 monitoring.

It seems rather reminiscent of both the post-WW2 remobilisation of US citizens in things like the 1950s ‘Skywatch’ programs (which Matt Farish from the University of Toronto has been studying) or more specifically, some of the brilliant novels of manipulation that emerged from that same climate, in particular Phillip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint, in which unwitting dupe, Raggle Gumm, plots missile strikes for an oppressive government whilst thinking he’s winning a newspaper competition, ‘Where will the Little Green Man be Next?’

So, who’s going to be playing ‘Where Will the Big Red Balloons Be Next?’ then… ?

DARPA's Big Red Balloons (DARPA website)

CIA buys into Web 2.0 monitoring firm

Wired online has a report that the US Central Intelligence Agency has bought a significant stake in a market research firm called Visible Technologies that specializes in monitoring new social media such as blogs, mirco-blogs, forums, customer feedback sites and social networking sites (although not closed sites like Facebook – or at least that’s what they claim).  This is interesting but it isn’t surprising – most of what intelligence agencies has always been sifting through the masses of openly available information out there – what is now called open-source intelligence – but the fact is that people are putting more of themselves out their than ever before, and material that you would never have expected to be of interest to either commercial or state organisations is now there to be mined for useful data.

(thanks, once again to Aaron Martin for this).

Surveillance and the ‘Open-source Insurgency’

Hierarchical, national and corporate bodies are profoundly afraid of the openness, apparent lack of interest in conventional goals and absence of obvious leadership or deference that is represented by the new collaborative networks like Open-source. They are not ‘under control’. The answer for the military-industrial complex is a consistent one, and as usual it combines strategic military and economic goals. This answer is surveillance.

The US military-industrial complex is always trying to identify new threats to bolster its budgets. There was a minor outcry a few years ago when US military powerpoint slides on strategy seemed to indicate that it regarded international civil society organisations, including the Red Cross, as a potential source of such threat. Then came 9/11 and the war on terror and for a while it didn’t need these phantom menaces as there were real global enemies, and fortunately for the military-industrial complex, it seemed that those enemies might be infinitely expandable and malleable into what was briefly termed the ‘long war’.

But the war on terror isn’t what it was. So there seems to be some effort to resurrect previous threats. One of these is ‘the war on drugs’ now rebranded as ‘narco-terrorism’ or ‘narco-insurgency’. And the particular focus of the concern is closer to the United States: Mexico. Writing in the self-proclaimed ‘capitalist tool’, Forbes magazine, Reihan Salaam argued that Mexico’s ongoing struggle with drug-related violence was a major threat which could ‘blind-side’ the USA. Now, Republicans like Salaam are struggling to find anything important to say when its obvious what the major global problems are, and the US electorate has decided that the Republicans aren’t the people to solve them. He is of course correct that there is a serious situation in Mexico – and indeed elsewhere in Latin-America: the drug-trafficking gangs are also the major problem for the Brazilian government in any attempt to include their excluded favela communities. However, he makes no mention of the other underlying cause of destabilization in the USA’s southern neighbour – the way in which NAFTA has transformed Mexico into a subordinate economic role to the USA as source of cheap production facilities and cheap labour, all the while being told that its people are not wanted in the USA. The EU has its critics, but at least its building of free-trade has been accompanied by a far greater degree of free movement of people and reciprocal political rights. Nor is there any reference to the consumption of cocaine and crack in the USA that is driving the trade (as the first comment on the article notes).

Instead Salaam tries to analyze the Mexican situation using a recent strategic theory, and one which is profoundly worrying in its implications. In an essay in the New York Times in October 2005, John Robb argued that the Iraq war had turned into what he termed an ‘open-source’ insurgency, “a resilient network made up of small, autonomous groups”. He argued that those resisting the US occupation and other armed groups were like open-source software developers in that “the insurgents have subordinated their individual goals to the common goal of the movement”. (Never mind once again, that there is an obvious underlying common goal – that of getting rid of an occupying foreign power!).

Now of course, in many ways this was just a restatement of the whole post-Cold War, network-centric warfare hypothesis. There are also echoes back to the kind of language which has been used to describe ‘eastern’ or ‘foreign’ peoples for centuries – the British in India being unable to tell ‘them’ apart, the faceless and numberless ‘yellow peril’, the ‘godless communists’ who subordinated their individual will to the collective, and the ‘clash of civilizations’. It’s the hive-mind, the fear of humans who don’t appear to act ‘like us’. Without the overt racism of course: this is Orientalism 2.0, the politically-correct version!

However the addition of the label ‘open-source’ is no accident. Hierarchical, national and corporate bodies are profoundly afraid of the openness, apparent lack of interest in conventional goals (profit, advancement, etc.), and absence of obvious leadership or deference that is represented by the new collaborative networks like Open-source. They are not ‘under control’.

So how to bring them ‘under control’? John Robb’s first (and rather refreshing) answer was that in many ways you probably can’t and that in Iraq, the US should have probably ‘let them win’. But this is an unpopular response for the uneconstructed military-industrial complex. For them the first answer is a consistent one, and as usual it combines strategic military and economic goals. This answer is surveillance. For the Internet, we have seen, and continue to see, attempts in multiple countries to attack the basis of what makes the Internet creative and free, in the name of all kinds of ‘risks’ (mainly terrorism, identity crime, pirating and paedophilia). Of course these risks are no greater on the Internet than in the material world, but the Internet is still for many people, and many politicians in particular, a vast, unknown terrain which they do not understand: ‘here be dragons’ as the old maps used to have it of any such ‘terra incognita’.

For countries afflicted by the new ‘open-source insurgency’, the answer is the same. The Defense Industry Daily today starts off its story on Mexico with the apparently uncontentious statement that “Mexico needs surveillance.” It then lists with the usual kind of techno-pornographic relish of these publications, all the mainly Israeli UAVs and surveillance craft that the Mexican state is buying. We are supposed to cheer. We are supposed to think that this is evidence of Mexico’s growing maturity. Soon Mexico will be monitored and ‘under control’. No evidence of whether surveillance ‘works’ (even in military terms) troubles these kinds of stories. That is taken as self-evident. And certainly there is no question of whether this could in any way be the wrong approach, or even a counterproductive strategy. As the Brazilian parliamentarian to whom I was talking yesterday said, about the favelas, the only answer to both crime (because, let’s not forget that’s what ‘narco-terrorism’ really is) and the poverty on which it feeds, is in the long-term (and that means starting now not later): sanitation, schools, hospitals, transport, jobs – in other words providing the poor with access to the same society that the wealthier enjoy. Extending intensive high-tech military surveillance across the global south is not only a complete failure to address these underlying issues, it also diverts much-needed money away from social priorities. It is the wrong answer to the wrong question… except for the defense industry.

Behind the scenes at Surveillance & Society

pkpI’ve been keeping quiet about this on the blog so far because it’s too close to me and probably of little interest to anyone who’s reading this, but what’s been occupying just about all my so-called spare time, and driving me crazy, for the last few months has been finally getting Surveillance & Society converted to a new website which runs on the really rather excellent Open Journal System, run by the Public Knowledge Project.

If it’s so excellent, why has it been driving me crazy? Well, being a piece of Open Source software, there’s a lot that is down to the user in terms of trouble-shooting and fixing unexpected problems. And unfortunately, despite being someone who often researches software, and computer systems, I am not massively geeky (ok, so my Geek Quotient is probably higher than some but that’s mostly down to teenage role-playing activities!). I originally taught myself HTML to design the original site, but using OJS has meant that I have had to develop a familiarity with CSS, XML and PHP. If I’d known how simple it was at the beginning it probably would have only taken me a few days, but I had periods of utter despair just looking at the site every so often over days and then weeks, and wondering why the <bleep> it wasn’t working… by the end I was just wondering how I could have been quite so stupid.opensource_logo

Well, there’s still lots to do but the site works. That makes me happy. And, more importantly it confirms both my and Surveillance & Society‘s commitment to open flows – Open Source, Open Access and the Creative Commons. The latest issue has even been produced entirely on a Linux-driven netbook from here in Brazil using Open Office (ok, maybe I am getting just a tiny bit geeky!). There is still a perception especially amongst those who buy into the corporate model of publishing that online journals are just pale imitations or easier to get published in, but Surveillance & Society is no weak online version of anything else, it is a proper academic journal with proper academic standards. Of course it is free to publish in and free to access. We aren’t going to go down the route of pay-to-view or pay-to-publish. Knowledge should be free. The downside is that our organisation has been literally amateurish and our ability to keep to deadlines has depended way too much upon my timetable and state of mind: the new issue was the result of another overnighter – I haven´t slept for 36 hours…

cclogocircleWhat has kept the journal just about going until this new website was developed has been time given mainly by me, but also by the other members of the Editorial Board and our Editorial Assistant, oh and also Nilz, and the techs from and the OJS Support Forum who have really been very patient! It is sometimes like an extra full-time job for which I don’t get paid… hopefully now, with a site that is at least partly automated and to which many people can contribute, that will no longer be the case. Surveillance & Society will finally be able to stick to a timetable, and I will be a lot less stressed.

But to do this we need some income and the main way we get this is by membership and donations. If you are interested in surveillance studies and want to support us, you can join Surveillance Studies Network or give us whatever you want – we’re a registered charity that owns Surveillance & Society and works to develop Surveillance Studies worldwide. That, and the income from reprints of articles in books, is about the only income we have.