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“… private surveillance capital has institutionalized asymmetries of knowledge unlike anything ever seen in human history. They know everything about us; we know almost nothing about them.” (S. Zuboff)Democracy Now interviews Shoshana Zuboff: “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”, Part 1. —
The goal is to automate us‘: welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism
Shoshana Zuboff’s new book is a chilling exposé of the business model that underpins the digital world. Observer tech columnist John Naughton explains the importance of Zuboff’s work and asks the author 10 key questions.
We’re living through the most profound transformation in our information environment since Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of printing in circa 1439. And the problem with living through a revolution is that it’s impossible to take the long view of what’s happening. Hindsight is the only exact science in this business, and in that long run we’re all dead. Printing shaped and transformed societies over the next four centuries, but nobody in Mainz (Gutenberg’s home town) in, say, 1495 could have known that his technology would (among other things): fuel the Reformation and undermine the authority of the mighty Catholic church; enable the rise of what we now recognise as modern science; create unheard-of professions and industries; change the shape of our brains; and even recalibrate our conceptions of childhood. And yet printing did all this and more.
Why choose 1495? Because we’re about the same distance into our revolution, the one kicked off by digital technology and networking. And although it’s now gradually dawning on us that this really is a big deal and that epochal social and economic changes are under way, we’re as clueless about where it’s heading and what’s driving it as the citizens of Mainz were in 1495.
That’s not for want of trying, mind. Library shelves groan under the weight of books about what digital technology is doing to us and our world. Lots of scholars are thinking, researching and writing about this stuff. But they’re like the blind men trying to describe the elephant in the old fable: everyone has only a partial view, and nobody has the whole picture. So our contemporary state of awareness is – as Manuel Castells, the great scholar of cyberspace once put it – one of “informed bewilderment”.
Which is why the arrival of Shoshana Zuboff’s new book is such a big event. Many years ago – in 1988, to be precise – as one of the first female professors at Harvard Business School to hold an endowed chair she published a landmark book, The Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, which changed the way we thought about the impact of computerisation on organisations and on work. It provided the most insightful account up to that time of how digital technology was changing the work of both managers and workers. And then Zuboff appeared to go quiet, though she was clearly incubating something bigger. The first hint of what was to come was a pair of startling essays – one in an academic journal in 2015, the other in a German newspaper in 2016. What these revealed was that she had come up with a new lens through which to view what Google, Facebook et al were doing – nothing less than spawning a new variant of capitalism. Those essays promised a more comprehensive expansion of this Big Idea.
And now it has arrived – the most ambitious attempt yet to paint the bigger picture and to explain how the effects of digitisation that we are now experiencing as individuals and citizens have come about.
The headline story is that it’s not so much about the nature of digital technology as about a new mutant form of capitalism that has found a way to use tech for its purposes. The name Zuboff has given to the new variant is “surveillance capitalism”. It works by providing free services that billions of people cheerfully use, enabling the providers of those services to monitor the behaviour of those users in astonishing detail – often without their explicit consent.
“Surveillance capitalism,” she writes, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Although some of these data are applied to service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioural surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I call behavioural futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behaviour.”
While the general modus operandi of Google, Facebook et al has been known and understood (at least by some people) for a while, what has been missing – and what Zuboff provides – is the insight and scholarship to situate them in a wider context. She points out that while most of us think that we are dealing merely with algorithmic inscrutability, in fact what confronts us is the latest phase in capitalism’s long evolution – from the making of products, to mass production, to managerial capitalism, to services, to financial capitalism, and now to the exploitation of behavioural predictions covertly derived from the surveillance of users. In that sense, her vast (660-page) book is a continuation of a tradition that includes Adam Smith, Max Weber, Karl Polanyi and – dare I say it – Karl Marx.
Digital technology is separating the citizens in all societies into two groups: the watchers and the watched
Viewed from this perspective, the behaviour of the digital giants looks rather different from the roseate hallucinations of Wired magazine. What one sees instead is a colonising ruthlessness of which John D Rockefeller would have been proud. First of all there was the arrogant appropriation of users’ behavioural data – viewed as a free resource, there for the taking. Then the use of patented methods to extract or infer data even when users had explicitly denied permission, followed by the use of technologies that were opaque by design and fostered user ignorance.
And, of course, there is also the fact that the entire project was conducted in what was effectively lawless – or at any rate law-free – territory. Thus Google decided that it would digitise and store every book ever printed, regardless of copyright issues. Or that it would photograph every street and house on the planet without asking anyone’s permission. Facebook launched its infamous “beacons”, which reported a user’s online activities and published them to others’ news feeds without the knowledge of the user. And so on, in accordance with the disrupter’s mantra that “it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission”.
When the security expert Bruce Schneier wrote that “surveillance is the business model of the internet” he was really only hinting at the reality that Zuboff has now illuminated. The combination of state surveillance and its capitalist counterpart means that digital technology is separating the citizens in all societies into two groups: the watchers (invisible, unknown and unaccountable) and the watched. This has profound consequences for democracy because asymmetry of knowledge translates into asymmetries of power. But whereas most democratic societies have at least some degree of oversight of state surveillance, we currently have almost no regulatory oversight of its privatised counterpart. This is intolerable.
And it won’t be easy to fix because it requires us to tackle the essence of the problem – the logic of accumulation implicit in surveillance capitalism. That means that self-regulation is a nonstarter. “Demanding privacy from surveillance capitalists,” says Zuboff, “or lobbying for an end to commercial surveillance on the internet is like asking old Henry Ford to make each Model T by hand. It’s like asking a giraffe to shorten its neck, or a cow to give up chewing. These demands are existential threats that violate the basic mechanisms of the entity’s survival.”
The Age of Surveillance Capital is a striking and illuminating book. A fellow reader remarked to me that it reminded him of Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in that it opens one’s eyes to things we ought to have noticed, but hadn’t. And if we fail to tame the new capitalist mutant rampaging through our societies then we will only have ourselves to blame, for we can no longer plead ignorance.
Ten questions for Shoshana Zuboff: ‘Larry Page saw that human experience could be Google’s virgin wood’
John Naughton: At the moment, the world is obsessed with Facebook. But as you tell it, Google was the prime mover.
Shoshana Zuboff: Surveillance capitalism is a human creation. It lives in history, not in technological inevitability. It was pioneered and elaborated through trial and error at Google in much the same way that the Ford Motor Company discovered the new economics of mass production or General Motors discovered the logic of managerial capitalism.
Surveillance capitalism was invented around 2001 as the solution to financial emergency in the teeth of the dotcom bust when the fledgling company faced the loss of investor confidence. As investor pressure mounted, Google’s leaders abandoned their declared antipathy toward advertising. Instead they decided to boost ad revenue by using their exclusive access to user data logs (once known as “data exhaust”) in combination with their already substantial analytical capabilities and computational power, to generate predictions of user click-through rates, taken as a signal of an ad’s relevance.
Operationally this meant that Google would both repurpose its growing cache of behavioural data, now put to work as a behavioural data surplus, and develop methods to aggressively seek new sources of this surplus.
The company developed new methods of secret surplus capture that could uncover data that users intentionally opted to keep private, as well as to infer extensive personal information that users did not or would not provide. And this surplus would then be analysed for hidden meanings that could predict click-through behaviour. The surplus data became the basis for new predictions markets called targeted advertising.
Here was the origin of surveillance capitalism in an unprecedented and lucrative brew: behavioural surplus, data science, material infrastructure, computational power, algorithmic systems, and automated platforms. As click-through rates skyrocketed, advertising quickly became as important as search. Eventually it became the cornerstone of a new kind of commerce that depended upon online surveillance at scale.
The success of these new mechanisms only became visible when Google went public in 2004. That’s when it finally revealed that between 2001 and its 2004 IPO, revenues increased by 3,590%.
JN: So surveillance capitalism started with advertising, but then became more general?
SZ: Surveillance capitalism is no more limited to advertising than mass production was limited to the fabrication of the Ford Model T. It quickly became the default model for capital accumulation in Silicon Valley, embraced by nearly every startup and app. And it was a Google executive – Sheryl Sandberg – who played the role of Typhoid Mary, bringing surveillance capitalism from Google to Facebook, when she signed on as Mark Zuckerberg’s number two in 2008. By now it’s no longer restricted to individual companies or even to the internet sector. It has spread across a wide range of products, services, and economic sectors, including insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment, education, transportation, and more, birthing whole new ecosystems of suppliers, producers, customers, market-makers, and market players. Nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device, every “digital assistant”, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy.
JN: In this story of conquest and appropriation, the term “digital natives” takes on a new meaning…
SZ: Yes, “digital natives” is a tragically ironic phrase. I am fascinated by the structure of colonial conquest, especially the first Spaniards who stumbled into the Caribbean islands. Historians call it the “conquest pattern”, which unfolds in three phases: legalistic measures to provide the invasion with a gloss of justification, a declaration of territorial claims, and the founding of a town to legitimate the declaration. Back then Columbus simply declared the islands as the territory of the Spanish monarchy and the pope.
The sailors could not have imagined that they were writing the first draft of a pattern that would echo across space and time to a digital 21st century. The first surveillance capitalists also conquered by declaration. They simply declared our private experience to be theirs for the taking, for translation into data for their private ownership and their proprietary knowledge. They relied on misdirection and rhetorical camouflage, with secret declarations that we could neither understand nor contest.
Google began by unilaterally declaring that the world wide web was its to take for its search engine. Surveillance capitalism originated in a second declaration that claimed our private experience for its revenues that flow from telling and selling our fortunes to other businesses. In both cases, it took without asking. Page [Larry, Google co-founder] foresaw that surplus operations would move beyond the online milieu to the real world, where data on human experience would be free for the taking. As it turns out his vision perfectly reflected the history of capitalism, marked by taking things that live outside the market sphere and declaring their new life as market commodities.
We were caught off guard by surveillance capitalism because there was no way that we could have imagined its action, any more than the early peoples of the Caribbean could have foreseen the rivers of blood that would flow from their hospitality toward the sailors who appeared out of thin air waving the banner of the Spanish monarchs. Like the Caribbean people, we faced something truly unprecedented.
Once we searched Google, but now Google searches us. Once we thought of digital services as free, but now surveillance capitalists think of us as free.
JN: Then there’s the “inevitability” narrative – technological determinism on steroids.
SZ: In my early fieldwork in the computerising offices and factories of the late 1970s and 80s, I discovered the duality of information technology: its capacity to automate but also to “informate”, which I use to mean to translate things, processes, behaviours, and so forth into information. This duality set information technology apart from earlier generations of technology: information technology produces new knowledge territories by virtue of its informating capability, always turning the world into information. The result is that these new knowledge territories become the subject of political conflict. The first conflict is over the distribution of knowledge: “Who knows?” The second is about authority: “Who decides who knows?” The third is about power: “Who decides who decides who knows?”
Now the same dilemmas of knowledge, authority and power have surged over the walls of our offices, shops and factories to flood each one of us… and our societies. Surveillance capitalists were the first movers in this new world. They declared their right to know, to decide who knows, and to decide who decides. In this way they have come to dominate what I call “the division of learning in society”, which is now the central organising principle of the 21st-century social order, just as the division of labour was the key organising principle of society in the industrial age.
JN: So the big story is not really the technology per se but the fact that it has spawned a new variant of capitalism that is enabled by the technology?
SZ: Larry Page grasped that human experience could be Google’s virgin wood, that it could be extracted at no extra cost online and at very low cost out in the real world. For today’s owners of surveillance capital the experiential realities of bodies, thoughts and feelings are as virgin and blameless as nature’s once-plentiful meadows, rivers, oceans and forests before they fell to the market dynamic. We have no formal control over these processes because we are not essential to the new market action. Instead we are exiles from our own behaviour, denied access to or control over knowledge derived from its dispossession by others for others. Knowledge, authority and power rest with surveillance capital, for which we are merely “human natural resources”. We are the native peoples now whose claims to self-determination have vanished from the maps of our own experience.
While it is impossible to imagine surveillance capitalism without the digital, it is easy to imagine the digital without surveillance capitalism. The point cannot be emphasised enough: surveillance capitalism is not technology. Digital technologies can take many forms and have many effects, depending upon the social and economic logics that bring them to life. Surveillance capitalism relies on algorithms and sensors, machine intelligence and platforms, but it is not the same as any of those.
JN: Where does surveillance capitalism go from here?
SZ: Surveillance capitalism moves from a focus on individual users to a focus on populations, like cities, and eventually on society as a whole. Think of the capital that can be attracted to futures markets in which population predictions evolve to approximate certainty.
This has been a learning curve for surveillance capitalists, driven by competition over prediction products. First they learned that the more surplus the better the prediction, which led to economies of scale in supply efforts. Then they learned that the more varied the surplus the higher its predictive value. This new drive toward economies of scope sent them from the desktop to mobile, out into the world: your drive, run, shopping, search for a parking space, your blood and face, and always… location, location, location.
The evolution did not stop there. Ultimately they understood that the most predictive behavioural data comes from what I call “economies of action”, as systems are designed to intervene in the state of play and actually modify behaviour, shaping it toward desired commercial outcomes. We saw the experimental development of this new “means of behavioural modification” in Facebook’s contagion experiments and the Google-incubated augmented reality game Pokémon Go.
Democracy has slept, while surveillance capitalists amassed unprecedented concentrations of knowledge and power Shoshana Zuboff
It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us. These processes are meticulously designed to produce ignorance by circumventing individual awareness and thus eliminate any possibility of self-determination. As one data scientist explained to me, “We can engineer the context around a particular behaviour and force change that way… We are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance.”
This power to shape behaviour for others’ profit or power is entirely self-authorising. It has no foundation in democratic or moral legitimacy, as it usurps decision rights and erodes the processes of individual autonomy that are essential to the function of a democratic society. The message here is simple: Once I was mine. Now I am theirs.
JN: What are the implications for democracy?
SZ: During the past two decades surveillance capitalists have had a pretty free run, with hardly any interference from laws and regulations. Democracy has slept while surveillance capitalists amassed unprecedented concentrations of knowledge and power. These dangerous asymmetries are institutionalised in their monopolies of data science, their dominance of machine intelligence, which is surveillance capitalism’s “means of production”, their ecosystems of suppliers and customers, their lucrative prediction markets, their ability to shape the behaviour of individuals and populations, their ownership and control of our channels for social participation, and their vast capital reserves. We enter the 21st century marked by this stark inequality in the division of learning: they know more about us than we know about ourselves or than we know about them. These new forms of social inequality are inherently antidemocratic.
At the same time, surveillance capitalism diverges from the history of market capitalism in key ways, and this has inhibited democracy’s normal response mechanisms. One of these is that surveillance capitalism abandons the organic reciprocities with people that in the past have helped to embed capitalism in society and tether it, however imperfectly, to society’s interests. First, surveillance capitalists no longer rely on people as consumers. Instead, supply and demand orients the surveillance capitalist firm to businesses intent on anticipating the behaviour of populations, groups and individuals. Second, by historical standards the large surveillance capitalists employ relatively few people compared with their unprecedented computational resources. General Motors employed more people during the height of the Great Depression than either Google or Facebook employs at their heights of market capitalisation. Finally, surveillance capitalism depends upon undermining individual self-determination, autonomy and decision rights for the sake of an unobstructed flow of behavioural data to feed markets that are about us but not for us.
This antidemocratic and anti-egalitarian juggernaut is best described as a market-driven coup from above: an overthrow of the people concealed as the technological Trojan horse of digital technology. On the strength of its annexation of human experience, this coup achieves exclusive concentrations of knowledge and power that sustain privileged influence over the division of learning in society. It is a form of tyranny that feeds on people but is not of the people. Paradoxically, this coup is celebrated as “personalisation”, although it defiles, ignores, overrides, and displaces everything about you and me that is personal.
JN: Our societies seem transfixed by all this: we are like rabbits paralysed in the headlights of an oncoming car.
SZ: Despite surveillance capitalism’s domination of the digital milieu and its illegitimate power to take private experience and to shape human behaviour, most people find it difficult to withdraw, and many ponder if it is even possible. This does not mean, however, that we are foolish, lazy, or hapless. On the contrary, in my book I explore numerous reasons that explain how surveillance capitalists got away with creating the strategies that keep us paralysed. These include the historical, political and economic conditions that allowed them to succeed. And we’ve already discussed some of the other key reasons, including the nature of the unprecedented, conquest by declaration. Other significant reasons are the need for inclusion, identification with tech leaders and their projects, social persuasion dynamics, and a sense of inevitability, helplessness and resignation.
We are trapped in an involuntary merger of personal necessity and economic extraction, as the same channels that we rely upon for daily logistics, social interaction, work, education, healthcare, access to products and services, and much more, now double as supply chain operations for surveillance capitalism’s surplus flows. The result is that the choice mechanisms we have traditionally associated with the private realm are eroded or vitiated. There can be no exit from processes that are intentionally designed to bypass individual awareness and produce ignorance, especially when these are the very same processes upon which we must depend for effective daily life. So our participation is best explained in terms of necessity, dependency, the foreclosure of alternatives, and enforced ignorance.
JN: Doesn’t all this mean that regulation that just focuses on the technology is misguided and doomed to fail? What should we be doing to get a grip on this before it’s too late?
SZ: The tech leaders desperately want us to believe that technology is the inevitable force here, and their hands are tied. But there is a rich history of digital applications before surveillance capitalism that really were empowering and consistent with democratic values. Technology is the puppet, but surveillance capitalism is the puppet master.
Surveillance capitalism is a human-made phenomenon and it is in the realm of politics that it must be confronted. The resources of our democratic institutions must be mobilised, including our elected officials. GDPR (a recent EU law on data protection and privacy for all individuals within the EU) is a good start, and time will tell if we can build on that sufficiently to help found and enforce a new paradigm of information capitalism. Our societies have tamed the dangerous excesses of raw capitalism before, and we must do it again.
While there is no simple five-year action plan, much as we yearn for that, there are some things we know. Despite existing economic, legal and collective-action models such as antitrust, privacy laws and trade unions, surveillance capitalism has had a relatively unimpeded two decades to root and flourish. We need new paradigms born of a close understanding of surveillance capitalism’s economic imperatives and foundational mechanisms.”
For example, the idea of “data ownership” is often championed as a solution. But what is the point of owning data that should not exist in the first place? All that does is further institutionalise and legitimate data capture. It’s like negotiating how many hours a day a seven-year-old should be allowed to work, rather than contesting the fundamental legitimacy of child labour. Data ownership also fails to reckon with the realities of behavioural surplus. Surveillance capitalists extract predictive value from the exclamation points in your post, not merely the content of what you write, or from how you walk and not merely where you walk. Users might get “ownership” of the data that they give to surveillance capitalists in the first place, but they will not get ownership of the surplus or the predictions gleaned from it – not without new legal concepts built on an understanding of these operations.
Another example: there may be sound antitrust reasons to break up the largest tech firms, but this alone will not eliminate surveillance capitalism. Instead it will produce smaller surveillance capitalist firms and open the field for more surveillance capitalist competitors.
So what is to be done? In any confrontation with the unprecedented, the first work begins with naming. Speaking for myself, this is why I’ve devoted the past seven years to this work… to move forward the project of naming as the first necessary step toward taming. My hope is that careful naming will give us all a better understanding of the true nature of this rogue mutation of capitalism and contribute to a sea change in public opinion, most of all among the young.
• The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff
The Shot That Echoes Still
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, fifty years ago this April, marked a blow to the struggle for racial equality from which the nation has still not healed. In an essay published in Esquire in April 1972, James Baldwin reflected on attending the funeral, and how King’s death signaled the end of civility for the civil-rights movement. At turns heartbreaking and hopeful, Baldwin’s words are as powerful—and urgent—as ever.
An Introduction By Michael Eric Dyson
On April 9, 1968, thirteen hundred people filed into Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta for the private funeral of a man who, like his father before him, had once served as its pastor: the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Attendees included Thurgood Marshall, Wilt Chamberlain, Marlon Brando, Dizzy Gillespie, Stokely Carmichael, and Robert F. Kennedy, who’d be killed less than two months later. The choir, 160 strong, sang sorrowful hymns. Ralph David Abernathy, cofounder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, officiated. A lone singer performed a devastating rendition of “My Father Watches Over Me.” But the most memorable speaker that morning—a haunting baritone piped out of tinny speakers that left his four children startled—was King himself.
“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral,” King pleaded posthumously in a recording from his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon given two months earlier and played at the behest of his widow, Coretta. He didn’t get his wish: The service lasted two hours, followed by a public, nationally broadcast funeral held that afternoon at King’s alma mater, Morehouse College. Such pageantry was a too-familiar vessel into which black pain was stuffed at moments like this, moments when suffering made no sense, moments for which we had no words. Yet the writer—especially one whose fiery style was forged in the pulpit of his church-bound boyhood—must have words. In “Malcolm and Martin,” as the essay was titled, James Baldwin recalled King’s funeral “the most real church service I’ve ever sat through in my life” and then grappled with the national undoing set loose by his death. Baldwin knew that America could survive only if it underwent an extraordinary social transformation—equality for all, hatred for none—that echoed the most noble ideals set out by our founding fathers. (That is, when they set aside their blinding bigotry.) But he also knew that King’s death, and Malcolm X’s in 1965, were signs the nation refused to acknowledge that the key to its salvation was held by those very people whom it had enslaved. The former quickly embraced pacifism; the latter was an advocate for black freedom at any cost. But the daily battles took a toll on both men, and their views had begun to converge—Malcolm mellowed; Martin grew more radical—so that, as Baldwin wrote, “by the time each met his death there was practically no difference between them.” Not that the country much cared about the particulars; the American experiment had once again bet against its redemption by black moral genius and lost.
America, Baldwin believed, was split in two—not between North and South but between the powerful and the disenfranchised. Racism, that scourge that beclouded our democracy, remained—remains—the nation’s greatest peril. But the powerful maintained the status quo by sowing discord among the disenfranchised. Poor white folk, rather than uniting with their socioeconomically oppressed brothers and sisters against the rich, trained their targets on poor black folk. They channeled their anxieties into a vengeance against blackness.
In this way, Baldwin predicted the forces that would one day lead to the return of xenophobic white nationalism, to the rise of Donald Trump. But to say Baldwin was ahead of his time is to miss his point: America will always need a prophet—a Malcolm, a Martin. The powerful will always seek to silence that prophet, instead trying to achieve the nation’s redemption on the cheap—not through self- correction but through crimson-stained violence that sacrifices the Other, whether black or brown or queer or immigrant. Fifty years after one lone prophet who didn’t make it to forty gave up the ghost on a bland balcony in Memphis, this essay is proof that King’s legacy, and Baldwin’s words, remain vital.
Since Martin’s death, in Memphis, and that tremendous day in Atlanta, something has altered in me, something has gone away. Perhaps even more than the death itself, the manner of his death has forced me into a judgment concerning human life and human beings which I have always been reluctant to make—indeed, I can see that a great deal of what the knowledgeable would call my life-style is dictated by this reluctance. Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become. This is not very different from the act of faith demanded by all those marches and petitions while Martin was still alive. One could scarcely be deluded by Americans anymore, one scarcely dared expect anything from the great, vast, blank generality; and yet one was compelled to demand of Americans—and for their sakes, after all—a generosity, a clarity, and a nobility which they did not dream of demanding of themselves. Part of the error was irreducible, in that the marchers and petitioners were forced to suppose the existence of an entity which, when the chips were down, could not be located—i.e., there are no American people yet. Perhaps, however, the moral of the story (and the hope of the world) lies in what one demands, not of others, but of oneself. However that may be, the failure and the betrayal are in the record book forever, and sum up and condemn, forever, those descendants of a barbarous Europe who arbitrarily and arrogantly reserve the right to call themselves Americans. The mind is a strange and terrible vehicle, moving according to rigorous rules of its own; and my own mind, after I had left Atlanta, began to move backward in time, to places, people, and events I thought I had forgotten. Sorrow drove it there, I think, sorrow, and a certain kind of bewilderment, triggered, perhaps, by something which happened to me in connection with Martin’s funeral.
When Martin was murdered, I was based in Hollywood, working—working, in fact, on the screen version of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. This was a difficult assignment, since I had known Malcolm, after all, crossed swords with him, worked with him, and held him in that great esteem which is not easily distinguishable, if it is distinguishable at all, from love.
There is a day in Palm Springs, shortly before I left there, that I will remember forever, a bright day. Billy Dee Williams had come to town, and he was staying at the house; and a lot of the day had been spent with a very bright, young lady reporter, who was interviewing me about the film version of Malcolm. I felt very confident that day—I was never to feel so confident again—and I talked very freely to the reporter. (Too freely, the producer was to tell me later.) I had decided to lay my cards on the table and to state, as clearly as I could, what I felt the movie was about, and how I intended to handle it. I thought that this might make things simpler later on, but I was wrong about that. The studio and I were at loggerheads, really, from the moment I stepped off the plane. Anyway, I had opted for candor, or a reasonable facsimile of same, and sounded as though I were in charge of the film, as, indeed, by my lights, for that moment, certainly, I had to be. I was really in a difficult position because both by temperament and experience I tend to work alone, and I dread making announcements concerning my work. But I was in a very public position, and I thought that I had better make my own announcements, rather than have them made for me. The studio, on the other hand, did not want me making announcements of any kind at all. So there we were, and this particular tension, since it got to the bloody heart of the matter—the question of by whose vision, precisely, this film was to be controlled—was not to be resolved until I finally threw up my hands and walked away.
I very much wanted Billy Dee for Malcolm, and since no one else had any other ideas, I didn’t see why this couldn’t work out. In brutal Hollywood terms, Poitier is the only really big, black, box-office star, and this fact gave me, as I considered it, a free hand. To tell the bitter truth, from the very first days we discussed it, I had never had any intention of allowing the Columbia brass to cast this part: I was determined to take my name off the production if I were overruled. Call this bone- headed stupidity, or insufferable arrogance or what you will—I had made my decision, and once I had made it nothing could make me waver, and nothing could make me alter it. If there were errors in my concept of the film, and if I made errors on the way to and in the execution, well, then, I would have to pay for my errors. But one can learn from one’s errors. What one cannot survive is allowing other people to make your errors for you, discarding your own vision, in which at least you believe, for someone else’s vision, in which you do not believe. Anyway, all that shit had yet to hit the fan. This day, the girl and Billy and I had a few drinks by the swimming pool. The man, Walter, was about to begin preparing supper. The girl got up to leave and we walked her to her car and came back to the swimming pool, jubilant.
The phone had been brought out to the pool, and now it rang. Billy was on the other side of the pool, doing what I took to be African improvisations to the sound of Aretha Franklin. And I picked up the phone.
It was David Moses. It took a while before the sound of his voice—I don’t mean the sound of his voice, something in his voice—got through to me.
He said, “Jimmy? Martin’s just been shot,” and I don’t think I said anything, or felt anything. I’m not sure I knew who Martin was. Yet, though I know—or I think—the record player was still playing, silence fell. David said, “He’s not dead yet”—then I knew who Martin was—“but it’s a head wound—so—”
I don’t remember what I said; obviously I must have said something. Billy and Walter were watching me. I told them what David had said.
I hardly remember the rest of that evening at all, it’s retired into some deep cavern in my mind. We must have turned on the television set if we had one, I don’t remember. But we must have had one. I remember weeping, briefly, more in helpless rage than in sorrow, and Billy trying to comfort me. But I really don’t remember that evening at all. Later, Walter told me that a car had prowled around the house all night.
I went to Atlanta alone, I do not remember why. I wore the suit I had bought for my Carnegie Hall appearance with Martin. I seem to have had the foresight to have reserved a hotel room, for I vaguely remember stopping in the hotel and talking to two or three preacher-type-looking men, and we started off in the direction of the church. We had not got far before it became very clear that we would never get anywhere near it. We went in this direction and then in that direction, but the press of people choked us off. I began to wish that I had not come incognito and alone, for now that I was in Atlanta I wanted to get inside the church. I lost my companions, and sort of squeezed my way, inch by inch, closer to the church. But directly between me and the church there was an impassable wall of people. Squeezing my way up to this point, I had considered myself lucky to be small; but now my size worked against me for, though there were people on the church steps who knew me, whom I knew, they could not possibly see me, and I could not shout. I squeezed a few more inches, and asked a very big man ahead of me please to let me through. He moved and said, “Yeah. Let me see you get through this big Cadillac.” It was true—there it was, smack in front of me, big as a house. I saw Jim Brown at a distance, but he didn’t see me. I leaned up on the car, making frantic signals, and finally someone on the church steps did see me and came to the car and sort of lifted me over. I talked to Jim Brown for a minute, and then somebody led me into the church and I sat down.
The church was packed, of course, incredibly so. Far in the front, I saw Harry Belafonte sitting next to Coretta King. Ralph David Abernathy sat in the pulpit. I remembered him from years ago, sitting in his shirt-sleeves in the house in Montgomery, big, black, and cheerful, pouring some cool, soft drink, and, later, getting me settled in a nearby hotel. In the pew directly before me sat Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis, Eartha Kitt—covered in black, looking like a lost, ten-year-old girl—and Sidney Poitier, in the same pew, or nearby. Marlon saw me, and nodded. The atmosphere was black, with a tension indescribable—as though something, perhaps the heavens, perhaps the earth, might crack. Everyone sat very still. The actual service sort of washed over me, in waves. It wasn’t that it seemed unreal; it was the most real church service I’ve ever sat through in my life, or ever hope to sit through; but I have a childhood hangover thing about not weeping in public, and I was concentrating on holding myself together. I did not want to weep for Martin, tears seemed futile. But I may also have been afraid, and I could not have been the only one, that if I began to weep I would not be able to stop. There was more than enough to weep for, if one was to weep—so many of us, cut down, so soon. Medgar, Malcolm, Martin: and their widows, and their children. Reverend Ralph David Abernathy asked a certain sister to sing a song which Martin had loved—“Once more,” said Ralph David, “for Martin and for me,” and he sat down.
The long, dark sister, whose name I do not remember, rose, very beautiful in her robes, and in her covered grief, and began to sing. It was a song I knew: My Father Watches Over Me. The song rang out as it might have over dark fields, long ago, she was singing of a covenant a people had made, long ago, with life, and with that larger life which ends in revelation and which moves in love.
He guides the eagle through the pathless air.
She stood there, and she sang it. How she bore it, I do not know, I think I have never seen a face quite like that face that afternoon. She was singing it for Martin, and for us.
And surely He
My heav’nly Father watches over me.
At last, we were standing, and filing out, to walk behind Martin home. I found myself between Marlon and Sammy.
I had not been aware of the people when I had been pressing past them to get to the church. But, now, as we came out, and I looked up the road, I saw them. They were all along the road, on either side, they were on all the roofs, on either side. Every inch of ground, as far as the eye could see, was black with black people, and they stood in silence. It was the silence that undid me. I started to cry, and I stumbled, and Sammy grabbed my arm. We started to walk.
I don’t think that any black person can speak of Malcolm and Martin without wishing that they were here. It is not possible for me to speak of them without a sense of loss and grief and rage; and with the sense, furthermore, of having been forced to undergo an unforgivable indignity, both personal and vast. Our children need them, which is, indeed, the reason that they are not here: and now we, the blacks, must make certain that our children never forget them. For the American republic has always done everything in its power to destroy our children’s heroes, with the clear (and sometimes clearly stated) intention of destroying our children’s hope. This endeavor has doomed the American nation: mark my words.
Malcolm and Martin, beginning at what seemed to be very different points—for brevity’s sake, we can say North and South, though, for Malcolm, South was south of the Canadian border—and espousing, or representing, very different philosophies, found that their common situation (south of the border!) so thoroughly devastated what had seemed to be mutually exclusive points of view that, by the time each met his death there was practically no difference between them. Before either had had time to think their new positions through, or, indeed, to do more than articulate them, they were murdered. Of the two, Malcolm moved swiftest (and was dead soonest), but the fates of both men were radically altered (I would say, frankly, sealed) the moment they attempted to release the black American struggle from the domestic context and relate it to the struggles of the poor and the nonwhite all over the world.
To hold this view, it is not necessary to see C. I. A. infiltrators in, or under, every black or dissenting bed: one need merely consider what the successful promulgation of this point of view would mean for American authority in the world. Slaveholders do not allow their slaves to compare notes: American slavery, until this hour, prevents any meaningful dialogue between the poor white and the black, in order to prevent the poor white from recognizing that he, too, is a slave. The contempt with which American leaders treat American blacks is very obvious; what is not so obvious is that they treat the bulk of the American people with the very same contempt. But it will be sub-zero weather in a very distant August when the American people find the guts to recognize this fact. They will recognize it only when they have exhausted every conceivable means of avoiding it.
In the meantime, in brutal fact, all of the institutions of this nation, from the schools to the courts to the unions to the prisons, and not forgetting the police, are in the hands of that white majority which has been promising for generations to ameliorate the black condition. And many white Americans would like to change the black condition, if they could see their way clear to do so, through the unutterable accumulation of neglect, sorrow, rage, despair, and continuing, overriding, totally unjustifiable death: the smoke over Attica recalls the bombs of Birmingham and the liberal Mr. Rockefeller reveals himself as being even more despicable than his openly illiberal confreres further down.
But it is not important, however irresistible, to accuse Mr. Rockefeller of anything. He is just another good American; one of the best. It is unlikely that any Western people, and certainly not the Americans, have the moral resources needed to accomplish the deep and mighty transformation which is all that can save them. Such a transformation involves unimaginable damage to the American ego; would reduce all the American religious ceremonies, including the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, to the hypocritically bloody observances many of us have always known them to be; and would shed too unsparing a light on the actual dimensions and objectives of the American character. White Americans do not want to know what many nonwhites know too well, e.g., that “foreign aid” in the “underdeveloped” countries and “anti-poverty” programs in the ghetto are simply a slightly more sophisticated version of the British policy of Divide and Rule, are, in short, simply another means of keeping a people in subjection.
Since the American people cannot, even if they wished to, bring about black liberation, and since black people want their children to live, it is very clear that we must take our children out of the hands of this so-called majority and find some way to expose this majority as the minority which it actually is in the world. For this we will need, and we will get, the help of the suffering world which is prevented only by the labyrinthine stratagems of power from adding its testimony to ours.
No one pretends that this will be easy, and I myself do not expect to live to see this day accomplished. What both Martin and Malcolm began to see was that the nature of the American hoax had to be revealed—not only to save black people but in order to change the world in which everyone, after all, has a right to live. One may say that the articulation of this necessity was the Word’s first necessary step on its journey toward being made flesh.
And no doubt my proposition, at this hour, sounds exactly that mystical. If I were a white American, I would bear in mind that mysteries are called mysteries because we recognize in them a truth which we can barely face, or articulate. I would bear in mind that an army is no match for a ferment, and that power, however great that power may consider itself to be, gives way, and has always been forced to give way, before the onslaught of human necessity: human necessity being the fuel of history.
If my proposition sounds mystical, white people have only to consider the black people, my ancestors, whose strength and love have brought black people to this present, crucial place. If I still thought, as I did when Martin and Malcolm were still alive, that the generality of white Americans were able to hear and to learn and begin to change, I would counsel them, as vividly as I could, to attempt, now, to minimize the bill which is absolutely certain to be presented to their children. I would say: if those blacks, your slaves, my ancestors, could bring us out of nothing, from such a long way off, then, if I were you, I would pause a long while before deciding to use what you think of as your power. For we, the blacks, have not found possible what you found necessary: we have not denied our ancestors who trust us, now, to redeem their pain.
Well. Baby, that’s it. I could say, and they would both understand me: Don’t you think Bessie is proud of Aretha?
Or: Do you think that Americans can translate this sentence both out of and into the original? My soul is a witness for my Lord.
Excerpted from No Name in the Street, published by Vintage Books. © 1972 by James Baldwin. Copyright renewed. Used by arrangement with the James Baldwin Estate.
To read Baldwin’s original story in full, plus every issue in Esquire’s trailblazing, eight-and-a-half-decade catalog, go to Esquire Classic.
The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism.
Bernie Sanders on Trump and the resistance: ‚Despair is not an option‘
As the total heads towards a million euros, I am proud of the donors from around the world. This campaign is by the people, for the people
You know when you just have a little idea, have a laugh to yourself and then move on with your day? I do that a lot, only on Sunday night, I didn’t let it pass but decided to try it out for real.
So, sat at the table after dinner, I started a crowdfunding campaign to try to rescue the Greek economy. Some basic maths told me that I only needed the entire population of Europe to donate €3.19 (£2.26) to reach the amount of the bailout fund. I included some nice perks for donating, including a Greek salad and holiday in Athens for two, and set up a page on IndieGoGo and a Twitter account.
Nobody was that interested at first, but after a couple of small stories on the internet, the idea seemed to explode overnight. I woke up to 1,200 emails and it got even more crazy from there.
I set up the crowdfunding campaign to support the Greek bailout because I was fed up with the dithering of our politicians. Every time a solution to bail out Greece is delayed, it’s a chance for politicians to posture and display their power, but during this time the real effect is on the people of Greece.
I wondered, could the people of Europe just have a crack at fixing this? Less talk, more direct action. If we want to sort it, let’s JFDI (just effing do it)! On Tuesday, between leaving for work and returning home, the crowdfunding page had raised over €200,000 in around six hours, which was incredible. This isn’t just about raising the cash, though. In providing the perks, we would be stimulating the Greek economy through trade – buying Greek products and employing Greeks to source and send the perks out.
The way to help a struggling economy is by investment and stimulus – not austerity and cuts. This crowdfunding is a reaction to the bullying of the Greek people by European politicians, but it could easily be about British politicians bullying the people of the north of England, Scotland and Wales. I want the people of Europe to realise that there is another option to austerity, despite what David Cameron and Angela Merkel tell you.
The reaction has been tremendous, I’ve received thousands of goodwill message and as I write almost €630,000 has been pledged by more than 38,000 donors. Many Greek people are messaging me to say how overjoyed they are to hear that real people around Europe care about them. It must be hard when you think the rest of the continent is against you.
The beauty of the internet and social media means that a campaign like this can become possible by word-of-mouth and people all across the world can get involved very quickly. The chance to use a crowdfunding site for social good is really exciting and I hope that others will follow my lead in future and start or get behind projects like this. Of course I would prefer that we had governments that listened and connected with the public, but I guess that getting people involved at a grassroots level might be the next best thing.
While I thought the campaign was near impossible when I started, I’ve since downgraded that to merely “improbable”. I sincerely hope that in the coming weeks I, and hundreds of Greeks, will be employed in wrapping bottles of ouzo and sending postcards of Alexis Tsipras out to people who have donated. The infrastructure required to do that alone would be quite something. But just think of the party!
Ultimately, I’m very proud of the people – not just from the UK, Greece or Europe but those from all over the world – who have got involved with this campaign. It truly is by the people, for the people.
- The Guardian, Friday 23 May 2014 07.30 BST
At the outset of Glenn Greenwald’s communications with the „anonymous leaker“ later identified as 29-year-old former NSA employee Edward Snowden, Greenwald – a journalist, blogger and former lawyer – and the film-maker Laura Poitras, with whom he is collaborating, are told to use a PGP („pretty good privacy„) encryption package. Only then will materials be sent to him since, as Snowden puts it, encryption is „not just for spies and philanderers“. Eventually Greenwald receives word that a Federal Express package has been sent and will arrive in a couple of days. He doesn’t know what it will contain – a computer program or the secret and incriminating US government documents themselves – but nothing comes on the scheduled day of delivery. FedEx says that the package is being held in customs for „reasons unknown“. Ten days later it is finally delivered. „I tore open the envelope and found two USB thumb drives“ and instructions for using the programs, Greenwald writes.
His account reminded me of the time, nearly a decade ago, when I was researching Britain’s road to war in Iraq, and went through a similar experience. I was waiting for an overnight FedEx envelope to reach me in New York, sent from my London chambers; it contained materials that might relate to deliberations between George Bush and Tony Blair (materials of the kind that seem to be holding up the Chilcot inquiry). A day passed, then another, then two more. Eventually, I was told I could pick up the envelope at a FedEx office, but warned that it had been tampered with, which turned out to something of an understatement: there was no envelope for me to tear open, as the tearing had already occurred and all the contents had been removed. FedEx offered no explanation.
As Greenwald notes, experiences such as this, which signal that you may be being watched, can have a chilling effect, but you just find other ways to carry on. FedEx (and its like) are avoided, and steps are taken to make sure that anything significant or sensitive is communicated by other means. In any event, and no doubt like many others, I proceed on the basis that all my communications – personal and professional – are capable of being monitored by numerous governments, including my own. Whether they are is another matter, as is the question of what happens with material obtained by such surveillance – a point that this book touches on but never really addresses. Greenwald’s argument is that it’s not so much what happens with the material that matters, but the mere fact of its being gathered. Even so, his point is a powerful one.
This is the great importance of the astonishing revelations made by Snowden, as facilitated by Greenwald and Poitras, with help from various news media, including the Guardian. Not only does it confirm what many have suspected – that surveillance is happening – but it also makes clear that it’s happening on an almost unimaginably vast scale. One might have expected a certain targeting of individuals and groups, but we now know that data is hoovered up indisciminately. We have learned that over the last decade the NSA has collected records on every phone call made by every American (it gathers the who, what and when of the calls, known as metadata, but not the content), as well as email data. We have learned that this happens with the cooperation of the private sector, with all that implies for their future as consorts in global surveillance. We have learned, too, that the NSA reviews the contents of the emails and internet communications of people outside the US, and has tapped the phones of foreign leaders (such as German chancellor Angel Merkel), and that it works with foreign intelligence services (including Britain’s GCHQ), so as to be able to get around domestic legal difficulties. Our suspicions have been confirmed that the use of global surveillance is not limited to the „war on terror“, but is marshalled towards the diplomatic and even economic advantage of the US, a point Greenwald teases out using the PowerPoint materials relied on by the agencies themselves. Such actions have been made possible thanks to creative and dodgy interpretations of legislation (not least the Patriot Act implemented just after 9/11). These activities began under President Bush, and they have been taken forward by President Obama. It would be a generous understatement to refer to British „cooperation“ in these matters, although Greenwald’s intended audience seems to be mostly in the US, and he goes light on the British until it comes to the treatment of his partner, David Miranda, who was detained in the UK under anti-terror legislation.
When the revelations first came out, in the summer of 2013, Snowden explained that he „had the capability without any warrant to search for, seize, and read your communications“. That meant „anyone’s communications at any time“, he added, justifying the public disclosure on the grounds that this „power to change people’s fates“ was „a serious violation of the law“. Snowden’s actions, and the claims he has made, have catalysed an important debate in the US, within Congress (where views have not necessarily followed party lines) and among academics and commentators. Views are polarised among reasonable individuals, such as New Yorker legal writer Jeff Toobin („no proof of any systematic, deliberate violations of law“), and the New York Review of Books’s David Cole („secret and legally dubious activities at home and abroad“), and in the US federal courts. In Britain, by contrast, the debate has been more limited, with most newspapers avoiding serious engagement and leaving the Guardian to address the detail, scale and significance of the revelations. Media enterprises that one might have expected to rail at the powers of Big Government have remained conspicuously restrained – behaviour that is likely, over the long term, to increase the power of the surveillance state over that of the individual. With the arrival of secret courts in Britain, drawing on the experience of the US, it feels as if we may be at a tipping point. Such reluctance on the part of our fourth estate has given the UK parliament a relatively free rein, leaving the Intelligence and Security Committee to plod along, a somewhat pitiful contrast to its US counterparts.
The big issue at stake here is privacy, and the relationship between the individual and the state, and it goes far beyond issues of legality (although Snowden’s fear of arrest, and perhaps also Greenwald’s, seems rather real). It is in the nature of government that information will be collected, and that some of it should remain confidential. „Privacy is a core condition of being a free person,“ Greenwald rightly proclaims, allowing us a realm „where we can act, think, speak, write, experiment and choose how to be away from the judgmental eyes of others“.
Snowden’s revelations challenge us to reflect on the ideal balance between the power of the state to know and the right of the individual to go about her or his business unencumbered, and this in turn raises fundamental questions about the power of the media, on which Greenwald has strong views, usually (but not always) fairly articulated. He makes the case for Snowden, and it’s a compelling one. One concern with WikiLeaks acting independently was the apparently random nature of its disclosures, without any obvious filtering on the basis of public interest or the possible exposure to risk of certain individuals. What is striking about this story, and the complex interplay between Snowden, Greenwald, Poitras and the Guardian, is that the approach was different, as the justification for the leaks seems to have been at the forefront of all their minds. In his recent book Secrets and Leaks Rahul Sagar identified a set of necessary conditions for leaks. Is there clear evidence of abuse of authority? Will the release threaten public safety? Is the scale of the release limited? Many people, though not all, see these as having been met in the Snowden case.
Britain needs a proper debate about the power of the state to collect information of the kind that Snowden has told us about, including its purpose and limits. The technological revolution of the past two decades has left UK law stranded, with parliament seemingly unable (and perhaps unwilling) to get a proper grip on the legal framework that is needed to restrain our political governors and the intelligence services, not least in their dance with the US. „The greatest threat is that we shall become like those who seek to destroy us“, the legendary US diplomat George Kennan warned in 1947. In response, revelations can be made, Greenwald’s book published, and a Pulitzer prize awarded. Long may it go on.
On Thursday the Daily Mail described the Guardian as ‚The paper that helps Britain’s enemies‘. We showed that article to many of the world’s leading editors. This is what they said:
In a democracy, the press plays a vital role in informing the public and holding those in power accountable. The NSA has vast intelligence-gathering powers and capabilities and its role in society is an important subject for responsible newsgathering organisations such as the New York Times and the Guardian. A public debate about the proper perimeters for eavesdropping by intelligence agencies is healthy for the public and necessary.
The accurate and in-depth news articles published by the New York Times and the Guardian help inform the public in framing its thinking about these issues and deciding how to balance the need to protect against terrorism and to protect individual privacy. Vigorous news coverage and spirited public debate are both in the public interest. The journalists at the New York Times and the Guardian care deeply about the wellbeing and safety of their fellow citizens in carrying out their role in keeping the public informed.
Jill Abramson, executive editor, the New York Times
When the Guardian offered John Lanchester access to the GCHQ files, the journalist and novelist was initially unconvinced. But what the papers told him was alarming: that Britain is sliding towards an entirely new kind of surveillance society.
- The Guardian, Thursday 3 October 2013 19.01 BST
In August, the editor of the Guardian rang me up and asked if I would spend a week in New York, reading the GCHQ files whose UK copy the Guardian was forced to destroy. His suggestion was that it might be worthwhile to look at the material not from a perspective of making news but from that of a novelist with an interest in the way we live now.
I took Alan Rusbridger up on his invitation, after an initial reluctance that was based on two main reasons. The first of them was that I don’t share the instinctive sense felt by many on the left that it is always wrong for states to have secrets. I’d put it more strongly than that: democratic states need spies.
The philosopher Karl Popper, observing the second world war from his academic post in New Zealand, came up with a great title for his major work of political thought: The Open Society and Its Enemies. It is, in its way, a shocking phrase – why would the open society have enemies? (But then, the title of Charles Repington’s The First World War, published in 1920, was shocking too, because it implied that there would be another one.)
We do have enemies, though, enemies who are in deadly earnest; enemies who wish you reading this dead, whoever you are, for no other reason than that you belong to a society like this one. We have enemies who are seeking to break into our governments‘ computers, with the potential to destroy our infrastructure and, literally, make the lights go out; we have enemies who want to kill as many of us, the more innocent the better, as possible, by any means possible, as a deliberate strategy; we have enemies who want to develop nuclear weapons, and thereby vastly raise the stakes for international diplomacy and the threat of terrorism; and we have common-or-garden serious criminals, who also need watching and catching.
I get all that. It doesn’t thrill me to bits that the state has to use the tools of electronic surveillance to keep us safe, but it seems clear to me that it does, and that our right to privacy needs to be qualified, just as our other rights are qualified, in the interest of general security and the common good.
My week spent reading things that were never meant to be read by outsiders was, from this point of view, largely reassuring. Most of what GCHQ does is exactly the kind of thing we all want it to do. It takes an interest in places such as the Horn of Africa, Iran, and North Korea; it takes an interest in energy security, nuclear proliferation, and in state-sponsored computer hacking.
There doesn’t seem to be much in the documents about serious crime, for which GCHQ has a surveillance mandate, but it seems that much of this activity is covered by warrants that belong to other branches of the security apparatus. Most of this surveillance is individually targeted: it concerns specific individuals and specific acts (or intentions to act), and as such, it is not the threat.
Even Julian Assange thinks that, and said as much in his alarming and perceptive book Cypherpunks: „Individual targeting is not the threat.“ When the state has specific enemies and knows who they are and the kind of harm they intend, it is welcome to target them to make the rest of our polity safe. I say again, on the evidence I’ve seen, this is mainly what GCHQ does. I would add that the Guardian and its partners have gone to a lot of trouble to prevent any unnecessarily damaging detail about this work being published.
Problems and risks
The problems with GCHQ are to be found in the margins of the material – though they are at the centre of the revelations that have been extracted from the Snowden disclosures, and with good reason. The problem and the risk comes in the area of mass capture of data, or strategic surveillance. This is the kind of intelligence gathering that sucks in data from everyone, everywhere: from phones, internet use from email to website visits, social networking, instant messaging and video calls, and even areas such as video gaming; in short, everything digital.
In the US, the Prism programme may have given the NSA access to the servers of companies such as Google and Facebook; in the UK, GCHQ has gained a similar degree of access via its Tempora programme, and the two of them together have a cable- and network-tapping capabilities collectively called Upstream, which have the ability to intercept anything that travels over the internet. This data is fed into a database called XKeyscore, which allows analysts to extract information „in real time“, ie immediately, from a gigantic amount of hoovered-up data.
In addition, the NSA has encouraged technology companies to install secret weaknesses or „backdoors“ into their commercially available, supposedly secure products. They have spent a very great deal of money ($250m a year alone on weakening encryption), on breaking commercially available security products. Other revelations have been published in Der Spiegel, and concern the NSA exploitation of technology such as the iPhone.
Access all areas
What this adds up to is a new thing in human history: with a couple of clicks of a mouse, an agent of the state can target your home phone, or your mobile, or your email, or your passport number, or any of your credit card numbers, or your address, or any of your log-ins to a web service.
Using that „selector“, the state can get access to all the content of your communications, via any of those channels; can gather information about anyone you communicate with, can get a full picture of all your internet use, can track your location online and offline. It can, in essence, know everything about you, including – thanks to the ability to look at your internet searches – what’s on your mind.
To get a rough version of this knowledge, a state once had to bug phones manually, break into houses and intercept letters, and deploy teams of trained watchers to follow your whereabouts. Even then it was a rough and approximate process, vulnerable to all sorts of human error and countermeasures. It can now have something much better than that, a historically unprecedented panoply of surveillance, which it can deploy in a matter of seconds.
This process is not without supervision, of course. In order to target you via one of these „selectors“ – that’s the technical term – the agent of the state will have to type into a box on his or her computer screen a Miranda number, to show that the process is taking place in response to a specific request for information, and will also need to select a justification under the Human Rights Act. That last isn’t too arduous, because the agent can choose the justification from a drop-down menu. This is the way we live now.
What this means is that we’re moving towards a new kind of society. Britain is already the most spied on, monitored and surveilled democratic society there has ever been. This doesn’t seem to have been discussed or debated, and I don’t remember ever being asked to vote for it. As for how this trend appears in the GCHQ documents, there is something of a gap between how the spies talk in public and how they can occasionally be found to talk in private.
It is startling to see, for instance, that the justification for the large-scale interception of everybody’s internet use seems to be a clause in Ripa allowing interception of „at least one end foreign“ communications. Whack on to this a general purpose certificate from the secretary of state, and a general warrant, and bingo, this allows full access to traffic via companies such as Google and Facebook – because their servers are located overseas. I can’t believe that that was the intention of the people who drafted Ripa, who were surely thinking more of people taking phone calls from moody bits of Waziristan, rather than your nan searching for cheaper tights.
There is a revealing moment in the most recent piece written for the Guardian by Sir David Omand, former head of GCHQ. He said that „the real debate we should be having … is about what privacy in a cyber-connected world can realistically mean given the volumes of data we hand over to the private sector in return for our everyday convenience, and the continued need for warranted access for security and law enforcement“.
That’s a total non-sequitur: Omand seems to think that just because we hand data over to Google and Facebook the government automatically has the right to access it. It’s as if, thanks to a global shortage of sticky gum, envelopes can no longer be sealed, so as a result the government awards itself a new right to mass-intercept and read everybody’s letters.
Staying within the law
All through the GCHQ material there is a tremendous emphasis on the legal basis of its operations, particularly in respect of article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which grants: „Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.“
It is repeatedly stated that „GCHQ operates within the law“ and that „GCHQ does it legally“ and that surveillance always has to be „justified, necessary and proportionate“. Good – it would be terrifying if that weren’t the case. But if GCHQ seldom breaks the law, it’s because the law is so broadly drafted and interpreted it’s almost impossible to break.
Also, in the GCHQ papers there are occasional glimpses of a different attitude, usually to be found in slides which are marked as „hidden“ in PowerPoint presentations, or in the presenters‘ notes to other slides. (Many of the clearest documents are internal GCHQ briefings laid out in the form of PowerPoint talks. I was reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s great joke, in response to whether he needed audio-visual aids for a lecture: „All power corrupts, but PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.“)
For instance, a legal briefing on the Human Rights Act lists the instances in which it is legal for the state to breach article 8: „In the interests of national security, public safety or the economic wellbeing of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.“
The notes make the point that national security, public safety and serious crime are the three current reasons for which GCHQ is allowed to eavesdrop, but there is a chilling addition: „‚Just‘ 3 at the moment. No reason why GCHQ’s remit would not be changed in the future but this is what we are allowed to do at the moment.“
It’s usually only in books that people’s blood runs cold, but mine did when I read that. „Just“ three at the moment: in other words, there are „just“ three reasons why GCHQ can violate article 8, the right to privacy. But that could change. It would be legal in human rights terms for GCHQ’s mandate to cover „the prevention of disorder“, not to mention „the protection of health or morals“.
Extending state power
The totalitarian state in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four would need no broader legal justification than that: it really does allow a government to do anything it likes. It was at this point that I became convinced that Snowden’s revelations are not just interesting or important but vital, because the state is about to get powers that no state has ever had, and we need to have a public debate about those powers and what their limits are to be.
At a moment of austerity and with a general sense that our state’s ability to guarantee prosperity for its citizens is in retreat, that same state is about to make the biggest advance ever in its security powers. In public, the state is shrinking; in private, it is shrinking until it gets just small enough to fit into our phones, our computers, our cars, our fridges, our bedrooms, our thoughts and intentions.
Another secret slide is headed SRA – a mysterious acronym that is not explained. The slide concerns 2P intelligence, 2P meaning second party, ie other countries in the „five eyes“ alliance of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It says that an SRA, whatever it is, „authorises receipt of 2P intelligence on UK based targets where GCHQ has no authorisation“.
Since GCHQ can spy on any foreign national it wants, this can only mean the surveillance of people on whom it isn’t legal for GCHQ to spy. That looks to me an awful lot like a means of obtaining permission to spy on people – British citizens? – outside the law.
We’ve heard a lot of talk about the distinction between content and metadata – content being the stuff inside communications, metadata the who and when and where and how of the communication, but not the content. The idea is that the spooks focus on the metadata and ignore the content – so they notice your nan logging on to the net, where and when and for how long, but don’t read the actual content of the search.
This distinction is written into the law in both the US and the UK. This would be reassuring, if the notes didn’t say this: „GCHQ policy is to treat it pretty much all the same whether it’s content or metadata.“ Put all these together and it is no wonder the documents contain a boast about the UK’s „more permissive legal environment“.
A new panopticon
The prospect this presents is something like the „panopticon“ which Enlightenment philosophers advocated as a design for the ideal prison in the 18th century, and about which the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote in his book Discipline and Punish. „He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relations in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.“
When I first read Foucault’s account of the panopticon, where the individual at the centre can simultaneously see and judge a whole multitude of other individuals, I thought it was brilliant but overheated. Now, it actually seems like somebody’s plan. That’s what we risk becoming: a society which is in crucial respects a giant panopticon, where the people with access to our secrets can see, hear, intercept and monitor everything.
Members of the security establishment always want more abilities, more tools, more powers for themselves and fewer rights for us. They never say „thanks a lot, we’re good from here, we have everything we need“.
From their point of view – the point of view of wanting ever more invasive secret powers – al-Qaida and its affiliates are the perfect enemy. Because al-Qaida combines the characteristics of an ideology and a network, it is everywhere, it is invisible, it is never more dangerous than when you can’t see it.
The new emphasis on anticipating the actions of „lone wolf“ terrorists raises this danger even higher: the risk of terrorism from people who have never been caught committing a crime, who have no known terrorist affiliations, who are invisible, who could be anywhere … It is the ultimate version of the scare story that used to be called „reds under the bed“. How can the state every hope to protect us against people like that, if not by permanent, omnipresent, ever-increasing surveillance?
If we are going to remake society in the image of the fight against terrorism, and put that secret fight at the heart of our democratic order – which is the way we’re heading – we need to discuss it, and in public.
When we do so, it might be helpful to consider something called the banana equivalent dose (BED). This is a term used in physics to measure the amount of radiation emitted by a banana. It is a number popular with people who think the dangers of radiation are exaggerated, and who use it to make the point that almost everything is radioactive. A dental x-ray has a BED of 50; serious radiation poisoning takes a BED of 20m; sleeping next to someone for one night has a BED of 0.5 and living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant for a year has a BED of 0.9.
Since 9/11, 53 people have been killed by terrorists in the UK. Every one of those deaths is tragic. So is every one of the 26,805 deaths to have occurred on Britain’s roads between 2002 and 2012 inclusive, an average of 6.67 deaths a day. Let’s call that the SDRD, standard daily road deaths. The terrorist toll for 12 years comes to 0.0121 SDRD. This means that 12 years of terrorism has killed as many people in the UK as eight days on our roads.
The security establishment will immediately reply that this figure leaves out deaths of terrorism victims abroad and the lives saved by its secret actions, none of which can be made known without jeopardising current and future operations.
Is that enough of a justification for the scale and extent of what is happening to our privacy? Is the current supervisory regime – which involves senior judges inspecting GCHQ’s actions, „within the circle of secrecy“, and issuing a secret report – adequate to the scale of the state’s powers?
I’d repeat the point that as digital technology, and the ability to enact surveillance through technology, expands its remit, those powers are increasing almost by the day.
In the UK we have a strange sleepy indifference to questions of surveillance and privacy. „The innocent have nothing to fear,“ says William Hague. But who gets to define who is innocent? Who gets to say what is contradictory to the „economic wellbeing“ of the UK? If the innocent have nothing to fear, why is the state reading so many of our emails, and sucking up so much metadata from our phones and computers, under the umbrella of „sigint development“?
People misunderstand what a police state is. It isn’t a country where the police strut around in jackboots; it’s a country where the police can do anything they like. Similarly, a security state is one in which the security establishment can do anything it likes.
We are right on the verge of being an entirely new kind of human society, one involving an unprecedented penetration by the state into areas which have always been regarded as private. Do we agree to that? If we don’t, this is the last chance to stop it happening. Our rulers will say what all rulers everywhere have always said: that their intentions are good, and we can trust them. They want that to be a sufficient guarantee.
There’s no need for us to advance any further down this dark road. Here are two specific proposals. The first is that the commissioners who supervise GCHQ include, alongside the senior judges who currently do the work, at least one or two public figures who are publicly known for their advocacy of human rights and government openness. The „circle of secrecy“ needs to include some people who are known for not being all that keen on the idea of secrecy.
My second proposal is for a digital bill of rights. The most important proviso on the bill would be that digital surveillance must meet the same degree of explicit targeting as that used in interception of mail and landlines. No more „one end overseas“ and „sigint development“ loopholes to allow the mass interception of communications. There can be no default assumption that the state is allowed access to our digital life.
As the second most senior judge in the country, Lord Hoffmann, said in 2004 about a previous version of our anti-terrorism laws: „The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws like these. That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve.“