New Internationalist

The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance

Globalization, climate change, terrorism, fair trade, human rights, health, poverty… The No-Nonsense Guides help make sense of these vast and complex issues, all in under 150 pages - providing a concise, ‘no-nonsense’ view that you can read anywhere. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be highlighting each No-Nonsense Guide in our series with blog posts from the authors concerning the subject of each book. Chapter 1 and the Table of Contents are available for The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance on our website. 

The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance
by Robin Tudge

As a journalist and author of the No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance, my work is involved in the global industry that is the public’s most frequent, solicited exposure to mass surveillance – journalism. Newspaper agents produce daily digests and reports of news and insights, information and data for global dissemination – a daily feed of surveillance for the public’s consumption. 

Just a flick through one copy of the freebie urban newspaper The Metro shows that most of the stories are surveillance-related. The front page of the December 17, 2010 issue is a story about how police will gauge whether youth are gang members by their clothing and use that to apply some kind of pre-emptive sanction or disbarring from public areas with no wrong-doing required. The profiling and pre-emption of groups in society are central controversies of modern surveillance. Police and security services have long been known to harass Muslims and minorities, but now race is giving way to apparel. Restricting people’s access to areas based on the risk they are presumed to pose is a practice that goes from urban control to the basis of global immigration. Government use of xenophobia is a game that too many newspapers seem happy to play. Another story concerns a man who killed a woman in a car crash; the salient point is apparently that he is a failed asylum seeker yet a judge ruled he won’t be sent home. Another newspaper story concerns the sinking of a ship of asylum-seekers near Christmas Island, with scores dead because the authorities lacked the surveillance to know their location. The British government used xenophobia to sell ID cards to the public, as the cards were deemed necessary to stop dirty criminal foreigners coming over here, abusing our welfare and women. However, the suspicion of the few would mean we would all need ID cards to prove we were kosher – the state assumes we are dodgy until a crappy plastic card proves otherwise. Another story shows the ludicrous depths to which this can go, when a student in Poundland can’t buy a tin opener without a proof of age identity card. 

Two crime stories in the paper are illustrated by CCTV stills, one showing robbers bungling their bid to steal an ATM, the other shows a public school girl during and after her fatal battering by a man in Trafalgar Square – in both cases, CCTV helped identify the perpetrators, but did not prevent the crimes. Also, Facebook’s implementation of facial recognition technology to automatically identify people in uploaded photos on the website raises big questions about people’s right to privacy and anonymity. Facebook holds profiles on almost a tenth of the global population, with more data than any police-state surveillance system has ever achieved, but voluntarily provided by its users. This is being used to solicit ideas for a book of stories. By contrast to this creativity, another story details how illegal downloads of music, enabled by broadband-connected computers are killing creativity. Putin says Russia’s secret service no longer assassinates traitors, while another man hires a private investigator to find out who carried out a murderous raid on his prize birds. 

The adverts in the London Metro overwhelmingly pertain to computers, mobile phones, Blackberries and broadband, Carphone Warehouse, Best Buy, Sky broadband, Vodafone, T-Mobile, BT, Nokia etc. (i.e. the technology of communications, data storage and distribution that form the backbone of the globalised webs of digital surveillance). These adverts are targeted at tech-savvy, credit-loaded youthful readership based on surveillance of consumer behaviour to develop vast, nuanced gradations and categories of society, its individuals and how they can be made to spend more. 

The business pages detail how white-collar worker productivity can improve if allowed access to websites like YouTube, which enable the world to watch the world. Meanwhile, Twitter is valued at £2.37 billion. Elsewhere, a judge is forced to issue guidance to journalists regarding the use of ‘Tweeting’ during court proceedings. 

Amid this blizzard of surveillance-related stories, only on page 11 we find the story dominating the 24-7 rolling news global media, the Wikileaks’ US Embassy cables, and the prosecution – or persecution – of Wikileaks’ founder, journalist Julian Assange. What the Wikileaks cables reveal is less about the blow-by-blow substance of what the US visa clerk in Tbilisi ate for breakfast, or that US diplomats may be a bit two-faced; that is the essence of this art, second in age only to prostitution. The real issue is how the modern digitised means of communications, data collation and dissemination - computers and memory sticks, and a maverick employee – can compromise an enterprise of any scale and supposed security, in an instant, to the world. The duplicity of US global diplomacy has been exposed by an Army private handing a memory stick to a journalist with a website. In this digitised day and age, nothing is sacred or secure. What hope for the security of the mere Briton’s data - tax income, health records, education, driving details, banking, council tax, emails, phone records … are held on some 700 databases, public, private, global, and counting? 

Wikileaks may seem to be a great blow for investigative journalism and free speech, and against the hegemony of the hyperpower US. But the US government, intelligence agencies and corporate backers are retaliating in ways that one supposes would be the antithesis of the principles of freedom, democracy and justice. Assange claims to be the victim of a smear campaign, orchestrated by the CIA and supine Swedes.  Notwithstanding the Swedish allegations against Assange, America’s lawyers have had to work hard to find a possible law that Assange has broken, e.g. the 1917 Espionage Act, and its applicability to foreign nationals working from abroad is dubious. Still, many US commentators in the government and media are demanding Assange suffer extraordinary rendition (at the very least). Meanwhile, global corporations MasterCard, Amazon and PayPal have shown no heed to concepts like the presumption of innocence or wrongdoing and withdrawn their services from Wikileaks. Hence, a man’s business, his career, his life, liberty and reputation, his right to free speech, can be manipulated, shut down and destroyed from the other side of the world, by remote control. That these companies have since come under attack from Anonymous hackers adds another twist to the danger of the new age of cyber-war, surveillance and suspicion. 

Overall, surveillance encompasses various methods and means of gathering, recording and distributing information – surveillance is the morally inert tool or technology to accrue and apply the necessary data to carry out whatever end is sought, by individuals, companies and governments. Of the many signs that a society is tipping from relative freedom to fascism, from a pluralist democracy to plutocratic police state, is when surveillance stops being the means to an end, and becomes the end in itself, for profit or power. The world has reached an unprecedented point in its development where there is nowhere on Earth that an individual cannot be tracked, identified, and to a greater or lesser degree, controlled – where intelligence agencies, government treaties, commerce and technologies have globalised, cooperated and confluenced in the pursuit of profit and power that no-one is safe. Surveillance has truly become a global state in its own right. Anybody could tell that by picking up a newspaper. 


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