I. The Merchandise
It was certainly appropriate that the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the mouthpiece of capitalist ideology, should publish an expose on “a new global market for off-the-shelf surveillance technology…” Entitled “The Surveillance Catalog” and referencing some “200 plus marketing documents” from companies worldwide, the WSJ story lays out an array of tools designed to rob every person on planet of their privacy. Here are just a few examples of the kinds of capacities that are being offered for sale:
1. Hacking: hardware and software that take advantage of “black-hat hacking” and “malware” methodologies to acquire other people’s financial and other data. This can now be done to large numbers (“hundreds of thousands”) of people simultaneously.
2. Intercept (1): “infect computers by falsifying web sites or updates of popular software” and then “remote monitor…what the user is doing on the internet.”
3. Intercept (2): “man in the middle” software that allows the monitoring of two sites that are communicating with each other. This software not only monitors communications but also can “alter the communications, possibly inserting malicious software into the data transmission or tricking the parties into believing they are communicating over a safe channel.”
4. Web Scraping: the gathering of “massive amounts of information”along with the ability to “store it and sort it so it can be used by analysts. Among the most important targets are “social networking sites.”
II. The Buyers
The industry magazine, PC World, called the Surveillance Catalog a “creepy read.”…at best disturbing and at worst unnerving.” PC also notes that most of the buyers of these tools will be police departments, intelligence agencies and other government departments that now constitute a large part of an “annual retail market for surveillance tools [that] has mushroomed from nearly nonexistent in 2001 to $5 billion today.”
Actually, “unnerving” is something of an understatement. According to the website The IT Manager, “one vendor executive acknowledged their products could be misused by dictatorships and oppressive regimes. ‘This is a dilemma. It’s like a knife. You can cut vegetables [with it] but you can also kill your neighbor.’” The executive goes unnamed but the shallow nature of his or her insight does not bode well. Thus,
1. Clearly, “dictatorships and oppressive regimes” have no monopoly on “misusing” this sort of “product.” With the USA Patriot Act and the power trips of the George W. Bush administration, sadly carried forward by his successor, abuse has become the U.S. Justice Department’s middle name. A 2007 audit of the FBI revealed that the agency had abused its power under the Act “a minimum of one thousand times to secretly obtain personal information” of U.S. citizens. There is absolutely no reason to believe the abuse has ceased.
2. A knife is for cutting and that entails a array of different uses. The products peddled in the Surveillance Catalog are not made for multiple uses. They are made for a very narrow range of applications, all of which are inherently intrusive. Indeed, they are made to invade other’s privacy and that is it.
It is important to keep in mind in whose hands these tools are to be placed: officials with power who really don’t feel bound by the law even as they see themselves enforcing it. People like:
a. the Oakland Police who have no problem playing at being Storm Troopers against peaceful demonstrators.
b. the University of California at Davis police who have no problem causally dousing passive protesters with pepper spray.
b. the New York City Police who have no problem spying on innocent Muslim citizens.
c.. the FBI’s Anti-Terrorist Unit whose unique approach to making us “safe” entails designing their own terrorist crimes and then luring individuals into attempting to commit them.
And on it goes. “Law enforcement” institutions are always at high risk of corruption by virtue of their position and power. Given this fact one might argue that the tools being slickly marketed to them in the Surveillance Catalog are actually made to be abused.
III. The Market Environment
Here are some other observations engendered by the Surveillance Catalog.
Give some thought to the ideological precepts of capitalism. A major precept is that the capitalist should make profit by producing things that other people want to buy. Yet there is nothing in this prescription that precludes specific products. Indeed, in theory, it can be anything that commands a market.
That means capitalists will deal in anything that sells: sex, guns, drugs, slaves, you name it and capitalists will bring it to market. Unless, of course, our capitalists are working within the law and the product is outside of it. In other words, unless the product is illegal. And what are such laws that make some products illegal if not the application of direct and necessary regulation of the marketplace?
Why are some products deemed illegal? One reason is that they are destructive of community bonds and values. Some illicit drugs have that potential, some forms of deviant sex may also have that potential, and so do the offerings of the Surveillance Catalog have that same potential. They can, and no doubt will, make minced meat of IV Amendment of the Constitution which is supposed to guarantee all of us the right to be “secure in [our] persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures…..”
Therefore, it follows that these products should be relegated to the illegal side of the capitalist ledger before they erode what little is left of our community bonds and values – particularly privacy. But who is to enforce this hypothetical regulation if the police and the Justice System, including the Supreme Court, have already been led to abuse their powers by the trauma of 9/11? That is very good question and I am not sure of the answer. Perhaps we need some variation on the Roman Tribune of the people. An ombudsman standing apart but also able to protect.
The trend toward an ever greater abuse of power through the act of spying has apparently created its own capitalist market. And the products designed to meet the demand of that market are now there for all to see. But many citizens will not look because they feel that the government is only interested in “subversives” and not them. This is a naive assumption. The Surveillance Catalog is a danger to us all. But then, perhaps as the writer Larry Niven asserts, “privacy is just a passing fad.”
DR. LAWRENCE DAVIDSON is professor of Middle East history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA, and the author of America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood (University of Florida Press, 2001), Islamic Fundamentalism (Greenwood Press, 2003), and Foreign Policy, Inc.: Privatizing American National Interest (University of Kentuck Press, 2009).