The Surveillance State and digital deformation

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by Steven Miller and Satish Musunuru

“The executive branch has now confirmed that the ‘rules, regulations and court-imposed standards for protecting the privacy of Americans’ have been violated thousands of times each year.  We have previously said that the violations of these laws and rules were more serious than had been acknowledged, and we believe Americans should know that this confirmation is just the tip of a larger iceberg.” — US Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall [1]

The Surveillance State is the inevitable development of a corporate-controlled Internet. Today some 70% of the NSA budget goes to corporations, which routinely implement computer programs that are hidden from the public as “proprietary information.” It is not much of a jump from privatized and hidden corporate systems to privatized and hidden state surveillance systems.

In this respect, Oakland, California is being transmogrified rapidly. Oakland is the country’s 4th largest port, is the port for Silicon Valley, and the site of the Port Shutdown by Occupy in November 2011. The city is spending $2 million to collaborate with the Port and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) jointly kicking in more millions to develop a “Domain Awareness Center” (DAC). This center will centralize all video feeds from Port property, including Jack London Square, the Bay Bridge, the Port, the Oakland Coliseum, the airport and Wal Mart.

The DAC is poised to extend into the city, through the city’s notorious police department, the highway patrol and the Bay Area Rapid Transit police, and intends to seize the video feeds from the high schools. There is a vicious irony here. Oakland’s Port is legally separated from the city. For decades, people have begged the Port to use some of their $100 billion-a-year revenue to help out the city’s impoverished schools. They have never given a penny, but now they take and privatize. All this video data will be collected by a private corporation that has a record of fraud, secrecy and kickbacks – SAIC, (Science Applications International Corporation).[2] Does this make any sense for democracy?

Mussolini is famously quoted as saying that fascism is the merger of corporations and the state. We always knew that corporations are in bed with the government. In fact, the US openly brags about the system of legalized bribery called Lobbying.

But how did corporations accrue the police powers of the state? One question, then, is — did corporations create the Surveillance State, or did the Surveillance State open the door for the corporations? Which is in control here?

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Back to the Future

Back in the early 1990s, the Internet was barely beginning. Everyone was dazzled about the possibilities of a universal communicator, where any could connect to any other individual or any other thing for free. The US Post Office was prepared to offer universal connectivity to everyone. Infinite global networking was on the agenda. The natural cooperative human instinct was in ascendency.

The basic elements of what would become the Internet had all been developed for free, outside of corporations, and had been given away to the public with no concerns for making private profit. The different technologies built upon each other through the efforts of a highly distributed network of engineers all over the world. Each piece built upon the foundation laid by another.

TCP/IP was created as a basic protocol to communicate between computers [3] and was available to everyone, although funded by ARPANET, which was a project of DARPA, which was and still is part of the Defense Department. These days DARPA is working on different technologies, like drones.

TCP/IP established the foundation on top of which came email, which uses protocols such as SMTP, POP and IMAP. The key thing is all these use TCP/IP for the actual transmission. HTTP which is the basis for the WWW also uses TCP/IP. So do Instant messaging and everything else we’ve come to enjoy using.

TCP/IP led to email and HTTP. Tim Berners-Lee, working at CERN, the European nuclear lab, tied the free software TCP/IP (for establishing domain protocols) to the free software for standardize common text for every computer – HTTP, augmented by the equally-free APACHE server, and created open public access for anyone through WWW protocols. A server stores information and sends it to multiple clients when they request it. This is what is happening when we open our browser and go to weather.com. Then Berners-Lee released the web to the world as HTML markup language in 1989. This standardized web page building and linking. [4]

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Suddenly computers anywhere could talk to each other. Soon the University of Illinois gave away MOSAIC – a free graphic interface. The open-source movement added Firefox – a free web browser. The basic open-source platform language LINUX spread around the world and is even grudgingly used by Microsoft.

Corporations for years had constrained the development of digital technology so they could make a private profit off selling privileged access to information. Berners-Lee designed the Internet so that it would be free: “I had designed the Web so there should be no centralized place where someone would have to ‘register’ a new server, or get approval of its contents.”[5]

The idea was to establish open peer2peer networks, where the computing power, and therefore the choices, resides at either end. The most popular search engines massive servers, on the other hand, keep that power in the center, and use algorithms to determine which sites are featured first.

Since a server is centralized, it opens the door to the notion of customers. At this point, the contours begin to change as corporations start figuring out this Internet thing and start releasing their own products as competitors to freely available open source products. Corporations moved in for the kill.

The next stage in this trend is in the development of the browser. MOSAIC was the open and free alternative, but Microsoft came along with its own closed Internet Explorer and started giving it away for free with Windows. Mozilla then developed a free and superior open-source browser. Corporations struggled to develop a browser that was superior to this, but now carry the bulk of the traffic.

Why do corporations give hardware and software away for free? Because they see a lot more profit potential in getting other corporations and citizens locked into their ecosystems. The race is to become the platform. Apple has successfully done this with their complete line of hardware/software products, which are notoriously closed to external developers. Now corporations began to exert control.

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Privatized

From the beginning, Bill Gates argued that no public discussion of who controls the Internet should even be permitted. He famously called open-source pioneers “new modern-day sort of communists”. [6]  Bill Clinton opined that corporations were the best way to develop the Internet. Al Gore and Gates re-defined the web as the “Information Super Highway”.

Of course, we know that super highways often have tollbooths, where you pay for the privilege of driving your car. Clinton began the massive wave of privatization, of both society in general and of the Internet in particular, that flourished under George W Bush and is expanding even more with Barack Obama. Clinton’s de-regulation of Wall Street set the stage for the looting of America by Wall Street banks, the 1% and their corporate attack dogs. Rajiv C. Shah & Jay P. Kesan amply describe this in “The Privatization of the Internet’s Backbone Network”. [7]

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated the entire electromagnetic spectrum of the atomic vibrations we use for communication. This energy spectrum is as fundamental as the sun, but it was given away to corporations for chickenfeed. This was a huge step encouraging the privatization of Nature and natural processes.

Then the insurance model, essentially the cable-TV model, was imposed on the Internet: you pay a corporation for access to something that could easily be accessible for everyone for nothing. After all it is simply a process of how you configure the software.

This massive centralization was clearly the exact opposite to the original intent of the Internet. The few massive super-corporations that already controlled the airwaves became ever more powerful. The great Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano stated, “Never have so many been held incommunicado by so few”. [8]

A woman walks past a building decorated with eyes in Crimean city of Sevastopol

The essential structure of the Internet is simply written down as code. It can be designed to benefit the public, or it can be configured to benefit private profit. Larry Lessig explains:

The architecture of the original Internet minimized the opportunity for control, and that environment of minimum control encouraged innovation…. At its birth, the Internet gave individuals great freedoms of speech and privacy.

But the story about liberty on the original Net had a sequel: what the architecture could give, it could take away. The inability to control was not fixed in nature. It was a function of the architecture. And as that architecture changed, the ability to control would change as well…. Technologies were being deployed to better monitor and control behavior, with the consequence, for better or worse, of limiting the liberty of the space. As the architecture changed, the freedom of the space would change, and change it did. [9]

Privatization is therefore not something that just happens. It is engineered. This goes deeper. These days, people like to imagine the Internet as a vast network, spanning the globe, where gigabytes of information send pictures and blogs around the world in microseconds. However, the Internet is dwarfed by a larger and far more sinister system of networks, the Intranet. The Intranet is the collection of corporate and military networks that are protected from the public by firewalls. These have expanded again into extranets – including collaborators from other private concerns into shielded activities. Needless to say, individuals have no access to their computers, but corporations and the NSA have access to yours.

Dan Schiller described the formative role of the Internet’s evil twin – the Intranet – back in 1999: “Corporate applications of Internet technology – intracorporate and business-to-business – comprise the true fulcrum of Internet system development. Corporate networks are the guiding hand of technical experimentation within cyberspace and comprise the leading site of its creative ferment. (emphases added)” [10]

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Fast forward to 2013 – the corporate control of digital technology today has evolved far from the original vision of a vast global network where everything is open for everyone. We could have public servers at no cost – we have public airports and roads – but we do not. Increasingly everything is in the Cloud, and corporations own and control the Cloud. Software components, like those Berners-Lee accessed for free, are now sold as apps. Corporations determine who can use them, for a price. Even if certain corporate products are free, it is largely because corporations stand to gain even more from the data they have about users using those products. Facebook is a good example here because while the social networking service is arguably free, the data that they collect and analyze on a daily basis is far more valuable.

Almost all of the data and intelligence reside on the cloud, which is a fancy way of saying massive data centers spread around the world, owned by massive corporations like Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft. etc. These data centers account for up to 10% of the worldwide usage of electricity.

The computers and cell phones we now use constantly reach out to the cloud for even the smallest of activities. When we speak into a cellphone and see our words appearing on the screen, what is happening is that our voice is sent over to the cloud, where it gets converted into English language words, and then sent back to the phone. It takes only milliseconds to do this and is not easily visible to the user. The cloud stores every word we ever say to the phone at least for a period of time. Such a simple act of converting spoken words to written words can actually be done on the phone itself, if it had the program, but it has become cheaper and more advantageous for corporations to do it on the cloud.

A more recent evolution is the development of “computers” with greatly devolved capacity, really just shells of computers, with little storage and an always-on connection to the cloud. Unlike normal computers, these computers cannot function without the Internet. They are simply a window into the cloud. If you lose one of these “computers” you lose only the hardware and none of the data because everything is stored in the cloud, which is owned by these private corporations. This is cited as a convenience to consumers but, as we see with the NSA, it can be potentially dangerous to live life in the cloud. Facebook claims they own everything ever posted on their platform – photos, videos, writings, songs, you name it.

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Microelectronics drives all this and is changing the nature of property. In the 16th Century most private property was in land; all of it was tangible. Today lots property is intangible, including things like software, algorithms, and ideas. But private property is still the divine right of thugs. Thanks to the Supreme Court, we understand these thugs are “corporate people”. So what kind of people are these?

The great book, The Corporation, points out that corporations exhibit characteristics of a very specific kind of person – namely psychopaths! [11] Like psychopaths, corporations are grandiose, manipulative, charming and deceptive, unable to feel remorse and always refuse to accept responsibility. So we happily trust all of our technology and most of our military to the tender mercies of… psychopaths. You know, nice people like Ted Bundy.

We can draw some conclusions here:

  • As long as society allows the private ownership of information technology by corporations for profit, the unlimited positive potential of technology will be deformed to guarantee that profit, short-term, regardless of the long-term destruction of society and the planet.
  • Corporations control the Surveillance State, not vice-versa.
  • Corporations control every technology as private property. The sad lessons that Global Warming is trying to tell us, and the utter corporate incompetence in the abuse of antibiotics, (just these two examples) show that corporate control is inherently incompetent and short sighted.
  • Therefore only the expansion of real public ownership and control of technology, at every level, in every branch of the economy, can release the wondrous potential of technology without abuse. The world of the very near future is going to be either all corporate, with no public, or all public, with no corporations. Which future it will be is up to us.

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Relations of Production

Bill Gates raised the question, what do communists have to say about turning the Internet into private property? Karl Marx showed how, in every society up to this point in time, the relations of production ultimately strangle the development of the means of production. This, he explained, must lead to a period of social revolution.

The means of production, or productive forces, refers to the tools and technology of human society, up to and including the human mind. The relations of production means the legally established social relations between people – how they interact and work together – that are ultimately determined by forms of property. For example, Americans consider Freedom of Speech perhaps their most important right – guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. However, freedom of speech vanishes once you are on corporate property. Try telling the boss what you really think of him and you will see how far this right really goes.

That is a relation of production. So are the minimum wage and the fact that women earn around 75% of what men do for the same job. All forms of discrimination and oppression pay off at the corporate bottom line.

Before the bourgeois revolution swept Europe in 1848, deposing almost all monarchies in its wake, a factory owner could hardly send his commodities down the river to market. Every minor princeling and self-proclaimed royal demanded the right to tax trade crossing their territory. This relation of production strangled the ability to sell products in order to realize capital and make private profit. Suddenly armies everywhere abolished this relation of production. In the same way, private property in digital technology deforms and shrivels the possibilities of the Internet.

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production….  At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. [12]

Marx’s point is that the relations of production, fixed and frozen as private property by law, ultimately become antagonistic to the development of a technology that is highly fluid and increasingly more productive. This is an objective process, outside of our control, one that informs any subjective acts of insurrection. The relations of production under capitalism take myriad forms, but they ultimately come down to essential principles:

If you own the technology, you can appropriate all the production that people produce socially, today in an increasingly global system, by working with/for the technology. As private property, this production is yours to sell on the market for private profit. The necessities of life are distributed based on individual ability to pay for them. If you own little or nothing, you must sell your labor power to the owners of the technology in order to get money to survive.

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None of these things have to be. We can imagine a different way to live. It was this basic human impulse that created the Internet.

A child can see the vast potential in digital technology. However, the “architecture of the system”, imposed by the outmoded relations of production of capitalism is definitely “in antagonism to” what a really developed Internet could be. These relations constantly “fetter” the development of computers and the Internet. If it does not produce private property, it is discarded. Hence private Intranets determine how the code is configured. God doesn’t put all those ads on your screen, nor does he demand a tollbooth between you and the information you seek. Marx was prescient on this one.

Information objectively demands to be free. It is a social act, an activity; as communication, it demands consensus to establish meaning. This is a social relationship that is strangled by capitalist relations of production. Information is easy to collectivize and relatively hard to privatize.

Information is not the same thing as a tangible, material product, such as the latest Jordans or even an orange. I can transmit information to you without lessening my ability to control or use it. In Marxist terms, information has use value – you can use it how you will. With shoes, if I give them to you, I lose control. This objective nature of information constantly struggles against the capitalist demand that it become private property that they can sell for a profit. That is a fetter on technology.

Everyone knows that microelectronics constantly reduces exchange value – what you can sell it for. This flows from Moore’s Law – that the capacity of a computer chip doubles every 18 months, even as its value decreases. Exchange value tends toward zero to the extent that labor-less production is employed. This is because ever-decreasing amounts of human labor are involved. Long before Marx, Adam Smith, supposedly the high priest of capitalism, identified human labor power as the basis of all value. Labor-less production, the fastest growing type of production in the world today, is coming to pass with a vengeance. Production without labor necessarily demands distribution without money.

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Attacks on net neutrality, filling your screen with commercial ads, various forms of corporate censorship, the domination of private search engines, the “Cloud” – all reflect the relations of production of capitalism. All serve to deform digital technology and subordinate it to the commercial interests of private corporations and the market.

Back in the Roman Empire, the hot new technology was the mule, the sterile offspring of a donkey and a horse. It was bigger and stronger than the donkey, and had far more stamina than the horse. The relations of production of slavery strangled this high tech development. Slaves could not personally sell the product of the mule, so when they took it out into the field, they beat it to death, “Hey Boss, you know how stubborn they are!”

But the thinking person, in antagonism to the relations of production of slavery, also understood that they could steal the mule, move three valleys away, and use this powerful new technology to feed their family and grow rich. Thus “begins the era of social revolution”. Since information and its technology objectively cannot be contained within the proscribed and narrow limits of private property, social revolution is already objectively going on. Today this revolution is struggling to pass into our common subjective comprehension. chk? The impulse to free information from corporate control gave birth to the Internet, open-source programming, Napster, jail-breaking your phone and the constant efforts to free digital technology for the 99%.

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The NSA is the Tip of the Iceberg!

The capitalist class deliberately distorts the class nature of the state. This is a scientific question, not an ideological one. Government is the administration of public money and resources in the name of society. The state is different. It is made up of the police, the courts and jails, the army, et al., and of course, the NSA. The capitalist class loves to present the state as a body that somehow stands above society, neutral to class interests, reigning with wisdom. One thing we have learned from Occupy, however, is that the police always seem to defend the corporations. They are hardly neutral. For both government and the state, law is simply the will of the ruling class, written down.

The purpose of the state is to defend the relations of production that are organized and imposed by the ruling class. Thus the state is a function of the relations of production, not the other way around. However, once established, it plays a formative role in organizing the relations of production for the class that rules the state.

In capitalism’s Industrial Era, J Edgar Hoover’s FBI collected dossiers on every politician, movement and individual that might pose a threat to state control. Today digital technology leads inexorably to the Surveillance State, actually only a small part of the entire state apparatus.

The US state has many manifestations: the military industrial complex, the media industrial complex that organizes the world’s most sophisticated propaganda war 24/7, the prison industrial complex, the corporate state, the surveillance state, the Migra, the militarized police we all saw at Occupies, open violations of the Constitution, the Department of Homeland Security, private prisons, secret ops, drones, extraordinary rendition, torture at every level, and so much more. Then of course we have the army, equipped with the world’s largest military budget, armed with some serious hardware, including the world’s largest supply of nuclear weapons. Corporations are inseparable from this. As they merge with the state, corporations today are rapidly developing police powers.

Social movements can sometimes reform the government, but state power does not permit you to reform the state. The idea that somehow the state will sit by passively while workers organize socialism is simply a fantasy. The state is programmed to intervene whenever the relations of production are threatened. Here and there, in relatively small-scale cases – Mondragon workers, for example, Kerala in India, Cuba, Nicaragua at one phase, etc. – the nuisance is such that the state chooses not to intervene – but these are few and far between. The job of the state is to identify threats to capitalist control and move on them.

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In the US today, the NSA works at one level; at another level, Homeland Security outsources police functions to corporations through contracts for profit. Its budget for doing this has averaged over $30 billion a year since 2001. During Occupy, across the country, DHS has established “fusion centers”, often in corporations or banks, where police gathered surveillance and advised corporate leaders. Domain Centers (Oakland is the second, after New York City) are required for every port in the country.

The state’s response to the NSA scandal has been to go on a marketing campaign: “Resistance is Futile! We’ve got things coming at you that you can’t even imagine, way beyond Darth Vader!” This is a point worth considering. How can the American people possibly fight this?

The most basic step is to understand that things do not have to be this way. Code can be changed and architectures can be re-designed. This is really an aspect of the tremendous battle of ideas that is breaking out in society. Every living system on Earth is in decline, except corporations. Corporations can be abolished by popular will if people are on the same accord, just as private property in slavery was abolished 150 years ago. These are historic times.

The American people have a long revolutionary history, but little recent experience with the process. Thus we do not recognize the critical importance of these essential first steps of the battle that are appearing today. The future world will either be all corporate or all public. We can decide.

Here is how one of America’s great revolutionaries – John Adams, an outstanding exponent of capitalism – explained the process:

The American Revolution was not a common event. Its effects and consequences have already been awful over a great part of the globe. And when and where are they to cease?

But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced (emphasis added). The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations….

The people of America had been educated in an habitual affection for England, as their mother country; and while they thought her a kind and tender parent, (erroneously enough, however, for she never was such a mother,) no affection could be more sincere. But when they found her a cruel beldam, willing like Lady Macbeth, to “dash their brains out,” it is no wonder if their filial affections ceased, and were changed into indignation and horror.

This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.” [13]

[Note: This piece first appeared as “Digital deformation” on http://www.dailycensored.com]

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End notes:

1.  Ron Wyden, Mark Udall. “Statement on Reports of Compliance Violations Made Under NSA Collection Programs”, Friday, August 16, 2013.

2.  Darwin BondGraham, Ali Winston. “Oakland’s Surveillance Contractor Has a History of Fraud.” EastBayExpress.com, August 28, 2013.

3.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_protocol_suite

4.  Larry Lessig. The Future of Ideas. 2001, p 52 – 57.

5.  Lessig, op cit., p 44.

6.  Kevin Kelly, “The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online”. June 22, 2009.

7.  “The Privatization of the Internet’s Backbone Network” by Rajiv C. Shah & Jay P. Kesan (www.governingwithcode.org/journal_articles/pdf/Backbone.pdf).

8.  Howard Zinn. A people’s history of the United States: 1492-present, 2003.

9.  Lessig, op cit., p 140.

10.  Dan Schiller. Digital Capitalism. 1999, p 17.

11.  Joel Bakan. The Corporation – The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, 2004. p 56 (You can also view the fine movie of the same name – on DVD).

12.  Karl Marx. Preface to The Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859.

13.  John Adams to H. Niles, February 13, 1818.

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[Thank you indeed Steve and Satish for this contribution]

Steven Miller taught science in Oakland high schools for 25 years. He started writing about privatization in 2003, when the state seized the school district and started imposing corporatization and privatization. He has written about the privatization of water, public education and the police.

Satish Musunuru worked in Silicon Valley’s technology industry for 12 years before realizing how his engineering and critical thinking skills were going toward helping corporate capitalism expand. He now uses those skills to understand today’s rapidly evolving trends and the larger situation humanity finds itself in.

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5 thoughts on “The Surveillance State and digital deformation

  1. Lengthy but great. Hope that many people read it. Vilhem Flusser has been writing similar things about the value of information more than 20 years ago, but many missed it, since it was in a book about the Philosophy of Photography. Keep up the good work!

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