2011 – just like 1984: social media and social control

January 18, 2011

I’ve had a good holiday and now I’m back in the tower and it’s a grey, rainy and windy lunchtime in Auckland. I can see the groundworks of our new building from here and the miserable weather is not affecting the builders. They’re out there sinking pillars into the ground for the foundations.

There are 10 cranes currently deployed and half-a-dozen trucks. I won’t bother with a photo today, but later this week, I’ll take a couple.

Thanks to my mate Gary in London, I have just this morning come to grips once again with Ethical Martini.

A lot’s happened over the antipodean summer, floods of “biblical” proportions that some take to be a sign; northern Africa is hotting up with protests; wild weather closing aiports across the US and Europe and this all on the back of an amazing flow of unrest across Europe throughout 2010. Maybe there’s something going on.

It seems that the security services seem to think so.

There’s an amazing story out of the UK about police infiltration of the British Greens. It’s a mind-boggling plot and a sinister reminder that we do indeed live in a surveillance society.

Simon Jenkins writes in the Guardian that a secret and semi-private police security unit [APCO] is infiltrating political groups and acting as agents provocateur:

A culture of perpetual fear has become so ingrained in government that nobody dares question any spending to which the word security can be attached. Last month these same agencies gave Britons their annual Christmas present, a day of planted headlines screaming, “al-Qaida threat to Christmas shopping”. It capped a year of “cuts threat to child protection” and “cuts threat to Olympic safety”. The only consequence of the Christmas stories would have been to scare people off going shopping. They must cost London shops millions in lost or deflected sales.

It seems this elite group is beyond any judicial or political control and runs as a semi-autonomous business. Isn’t this how death squads operate?

It trades on its own account, generating revenue by selling data from the police national computer for £70 an item (cost of retrieval, 60p). It owns an estate of 80 flats in central London.

This is amazing, privately on-selling data on protesters and others at a huge mark-up and then investing that money in illegal spying operations against activists. What a great business model — the surveillance economy — in full-swing.

The other story of note that Gary alerted me to is the US government demanding access to an Icelandic politician’s Twitter account to assist its investigation of Wikileaks.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir, an MP for the Movement in Iceland, revealed last week that the US justice department had asked Twitter to hand over her information. The US authorities are trying to build a criminal case against the website after its huge leaks of classified US information.

“[It is] very serious that a foreign state, the United States, demands such personal information of an Icelandic person, an elected official,” the interior minister, Ogmundur Jonasson, told Icelandic broadcaster RUV. “This is even more serious when put [in] perspective and concerns freedom of speech and people’s freedom in general,” he added.

The article by Dominic Rushe of the Guardian, also raises concerns that the Justice department might also be seeking information from Google, Facebook and other social networking sites to rope in Wikileaks’ contributors and supporters.

The surveillance power of social networks is now being exposed. I’ve long felt that this issue was under reported and not really taken seriously by proponents of social media evangelism.

These technologies can be easily turned into tools of social control and that’s what seems to be happening. We’ve been aware of it in China for some time and thankfully Chinese activists and pro-democracy groups are finding their way around some of the blocks.

It is the telescreen from 1984. Orwell foresaw the two-way nature of these applications and how they could be used to ferret out dissidents and to quash unrest.

Winston is painfully aware of the telescreen, which is both a receiver and transmitter at the same time. It incessantly relays messages from the Party and simultaneously allows the dreaded “thought police” to tune into the activities of any individual at any given time. The administration is divided among four Ministries- the Ministry of Truth, which deals with news, entertainment, education and fine arts, the Ministry of Love which maintains law and order, the Ministry of Peace which wages war and the Ministry of Plenty which handles economic affairs. The very vocabulary of the people was under Party Control; a system called “newspeak” was encouraged. One of the most dreaded words in the arsenal of Newspeak was the most heinous offence according to the Party – that of “thoughtcrime” which was sure to be punished by the Thought police. [summary from the Literature Network]

‘Thoughtcrime’, we commit it every day. Social networks are the new telescreen and in this case Western governments and many others I’m sure, are actively gathering data from social media to use for political and security means.

How long before we’re all branded as potential terror suspects?

So, I’m really grateful that Wikileaks is around and that Gary sent me another great piece about how Wikileaks is being slandered and subject to a constant, well-funded black-ops propaganda campaign by the US and other governments.

Glenn Greenwald’s piece in Salon canvases a range of important issues here, including freedom of speech and the hypocrisy of the US government over its treatment of Wikileaks and the newspapers that published extracts from the cables.

More importantly perhaps, Greenwald makes the point that it is the nature of the relationship between Wikileaks and its newspaper and media partners which really tells the story:

…there is a full-scale government/media campaign to demonize the group through outright fiction of the type that sold the nation on Iraq’s WMD stockpiles and Al Qaeda alliance.  The undeniable truth from the start is that, with very few exceptions, WikiLeaks has only been publishing those cables which its newspaper partners first publish (and WikiLeaks thereafter publishes the cables with the redactions applied by those papers).  This judicious editorial process — in which WikiLeaks largely relies on the editorial judgment of these newspapers for what to release — was detailed more than a month ago by the Associated Press.

This is fascinating and I’ve not seen it explained anywhere else. It is a great move on Wikileaks’ part and shows a level of integrity that the MSM does not often apply, as Greenwald points out in relation to the Guardian‘s own treatment of this story.

The Orwellian undertones that link these three recent events are clear enough; the question is what do we do about it?

I’m certainly going to be mulling on this over the next few months and it’s a theme I will return to over the year.

For now though, if you still need a bit of holiday mood as you ease into the year, or if you’re cut off by wild weather, snow, floods or other natural disasters, you might contemplate a bit of reading.

May I suggest two downloadable and free sci-fi novels by Cory Doctorow.

These two books capture the mood I was trying to invoke here. The dialectic between pessimism and optimism in relation to the political realities of earth circa the ‘new 20s’

Little Brother [download for free]

For the win [download for free]

Little Brother is a great story of surveillance and resistance against ‘homeland security’; For the win is about how we might make revolution today.

Both are excellent.


Wikileaks – an enemy of the State, just like Little Brother

April 7, 2010

The semi-underground Wikileaks site has become a news story in the last 48 hours thanks to the disturbing video of two Reuters staffers being gunned down in Baghdad in 2007.

Last year the site was named as the Amnesty International new media site of the year.

The April 2010 video released by Wikileaks [available at EM here] shows a group of Iraqis walking in a neighbourhood where the American military was staging a large “counter-insurgency” operation.

The Reuters men were there to cover the story on the ground. Unfortunately two trigger-happy Apache pilots mistook a telephoto lens for an AK47 and opened fire. Twelve people were killed, two children were wounded.

Wikileaks used a crowd source of hackers to decode the encryption on the Apache “gun camera” footage that was leaked to them by whistleblowers.

Now the US military and its Washington think-tank apologists are trying to hose down the story and imply that the Apache pilots were only doing their jobs.

No surprises there; but I didn’t know that in 2008 the American military machine has also listed Wikileaks as an enemy of the State.

This document is a classified (SECRET/NOFORN) 32 page U.S. counterintelligence investigation into WikiLeaks. “The possibility that current employees or moles within DoD or elsewhere in the U.S. government are providing sensitive or classified information to WikiLeaks.org cannot be ruled out”. It concocts a plan to fatally marginalize the organization. Since WikiLeaks uses “trust as a center of gravity by protecting the anonymity and identity of the insiders, leakers or whistleblowers”, the report recommends “The identification, exposure, termination of employment, criminal prosecution, legal action against current or former insiders, leakers, or whistleblowers could potentially damage or destroy this center of gravity and deter others considering similar actions from using the WikiLeaks.org Web site”. [the document is no longer available at Wikileaks]

This is bizarre and shows just how twisted the whole concept of “homeland security” is. It reminds me of the plot in a great Cory Doctorow novel I’m reading at the moment: Little Brother.

In this book, the hero Marcus Yarrow faces down the Department of Homeland Security after a terrorist bomb destroys the Oakland Bay bridge in San Francisco. The DHS locks down the city and ups the surveillance in school classrooms, on the street and via electronic devices so that everyone is under their gaze 24/7 (almost).

Yarrow is a 17 year-old school kid who’s into online gaming and computer coding. After his illegal detention by DHS agents, Marcus and his friends organise a jamming campaign using darknet software that plays on the Xbox.

In an interesting twist, Marcus and his family seek the help of a dead trees “investigative journalist” to expose the DHS clampdown on civil liberties.

I find this interesting because it possibly shows the limits of social media in terms of making a really big story public and driving public opinion.

It’s probably also a comment on the age gap. Yarrow’s father is old school so doesn’t understand the jamming culture of his kid.

I haven’t quite finished Little Brother yet; but I can’t wait to get home and read the last 80 pages.

You should get hold of a copy; it’s an interesting book and an important statement about how Homeland Security has become a war against the American people. You can also check out a fan page for the book on Facebook.

Writer, blogger and cool geek Cory Doctorow

Doctorow is behind the technology and culture blog Boing Boing and I like him even more now that he’s just published an anti iPad manifesto.

In particular there’s this biting swipe at the dead tree media:

I think that the press has been all over the iPad because Apple puts on a good show, and because everyone in journalism-land is looking for a daddy figure who’ll promise them that their audience will go back to paying for their stuff.

The parallels between the military’s attitude to Wikileaks and the DHS crackdown on civil liberties is eirie.