James Der Derian on Edward Snowden and cyber-zombies

A host of new surveillance dangers

James Der Derian on Edward Snowden and cyber-zombies

The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man

by Luke Harding

Guardian Books/Faber, $29.99 pb, 346 pp, 9781783350353

Book Cover 2 Small

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State

by Glenn Greenwald

Hamish Hamilton, $29.99 pb, 259 pp, 9780241146705

James Der Derian

James Der Derian

James Der Derian...

1984 is back. George Orwell’s nightmare vision of governmental surveillance, secrecy, and deception clearly resonates with the revelations first leaked to the Guardian by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden. Indeed, it is practically impossible to find an account of the Snowden affair without at least one ‘Orwellian’ adjective dropped into the mix. Sometimes it comes qualified: Justice Richard J. Leon, District Court Judge for the District of Columbia ruling in December 2013 that the bulk collection of US mobile phone records was probably unconstitutional, called the NSA program ‘almost Orwellian’. This decision is currently under appeal.

Orwell’s shadow falls darkly over the two best books on the topic: The Snowden Files by Luke Harding; and No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald. Harding aptly captures this Orwellian world with two word-pictures drawn from 1984. In the first a familiar Big Brother spouts Newspeak on a two-way telescreen in front of rows of grey automatons. An athletic woman, chased by riot police through the uniformed ranks, stops and hurls an Olympic-sized hammer at the screen of Big Brother, shattering it.

This all happens not in real life but in its next highest expression: on the televisions of more than 100 million watchers during the 1984 American Super Bowl. One does not have to read too deeply into the famous Apple advertisement to figure out the message: Big Brother=Big Blue (IBM); Riot Police=Reagan-era repression; Rebellious Female (in white tank top)=Free expression (and sex). And just in case you missed it, the voice-over delivers the punchline: ‘On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.’

Maybe not. One of the most telling NSA PowerPoint slides leaked by Snowden (to documentary film-maker Laura Poitras, who deserves far more credit than she has received in press accounts) and published in Der Spiegel also invokes the famous 1984 Super Bowl advertisement. The first slide is titled ‘iPhone Location Services’; the second one begins, ‘Who knew in 1984 …’; the third continues, with a picture of Steve Jobs holding the new iPhone aloft like a gift of fire from the gods, ‘… that this would be Big Brother ...’ The last slide provides the kicker, photographs of joyous iPhone users and the caption: ‘… and the zombies would be paying customers?’

Setting a new standard in the banality of official turpitude, the primary evidence of corporate compliance came in the form of forty-one NSA PowerPoint slides on the PRISM program, first leaked to Greenwald and published in part in the Guardian. The slides reveal a remarkable level of complicity among the NSA, the top US technology companies, and the judicial oversight body, the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court. Greenwald is superb in walking the reader through the complex material and political context of the PRISM program. Only a shorthand version of the rationale and process recounted by Greenwald for setting up the biggest electronic hoover in the free world can be provided here.

snowden image 1Edward Snowden looking relaxed and cheerful at his hotel room in Hong Kong. He had just brokered the most significant leak of intelligence in US (and UK) history, revealing previously unknown programs of mass government surveillance. (Ewan MacAskill, Guardian)

Based on a ‘reasonable belief’ of a foreign connection and a ‘suspicion’ of terrorist activities, the NSA seeks the FISA Court’s approval for the collection and analysis of metadata (location, time, and address as opposed to the messages’ actual content) directly from the leading service providers and tech companies. A ‘reasonable belief’ of a foreign connection is defined as ‘51 percent confidence’ by an NSA supervisor, and, crucially, Justice Leon could not find a single case in which the NSA’s bulk metadata collection stopped an imminent terrorist attack. The FISA Court approval process can also be seen as a proverbial rubber stamp, with the FISA Court rejecting only eleven applications out of more than 20,000 requests between 2002 and 2012.

Tech companies including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple complied with these requests with varying degrees of opposition (Yahoo most persistently) and during a five-year timeline (Microsoft the first to join in September 2007, Apple the last in October 2012).

The NSA, following the ‘Five Eyes’ agreement, then shares information with the alphabet-soup of other Anglo signal intelligence agencies: GCHQ (UK), GCSB (New Zealand), CSEC (Canada), and ASD (Australia). It turns out that Israel’s SIGINT National Unit has practically equal standing with Five Eyes, even receiving raw data that has not been ‘minimised’ to exclude materials possibly prohibited by the US Constitution and domestic laws.

Based on other leaked files, it would seem that for intelligence organisations the only contraband more addictive than crack cocaine is metadata. SIGINT agencies can never get enough of the stuff, offering up their own intercepts for one more taste. For instance, under the TEMPORA program, the UK’s GCHQ intercepted, stored, and provided other security agencies with both data and metadata transmitted by billions of people over underwater fibre-optic cables that start, terminate, or transit through UK territories. TEMPORA collected not only metadata, but also recorded the content of phone calls, email messages, Facebook entries, Internet browser histories and other data transmitted via trans-Atlantic cables throughout and between Europe, Africa, and North America. Canada’s CSEC shared intelligence on the Brazilian mining industry. Closer to home, it was recently revealed from leaks that the Australian ASD, under the STATEROOM program, intercepted (with help from the US Embassy) messages from the mobile phones of the Indonesian president, his wife, and the Indonesian foreign affairs spokesman and security minister. Most recently, under codename MYSTIC, metadata from mobile phones in the Philippines was collected by ASD and shared with the NSA.

Based on other leaked files, it would seem that for intelligence organisations the only contraband more addictive than crack cocaine is metadata.

The cornucopia overflows, which is why Australia might be high on the NSA’s watchlist for the next generation of signals intelligence. Collecting metadata is one thing: assessing, analysing, storing, and distributing it is another. An increase in the sophistication of algorithms, decrease in storage costs, and boost to computer processing has enabled many of the current NSA surveillance programs to thrive. Back in the day when Admiral Poindexter created the Total Information Awareness program in the 9/11 era (and before it was suspended by Congress in 2003 after a public outcry), data mining was a fairly primitive sector of the computer industry.

That has radically changed, and is likely to exponentially improve in the future, judging from the files that Snowden leaked on 2 January 2014. These PowerPoint slides are strangely recursive, revealing a $79 million dollar program to develop a quantum computer (not to be confused with an earlier 2004 NSA malware program called QUANTUM- SKY) by arguing for its classification as top secret:

(S//SI//REL) Much of the research in quantum computing is still very basic and is most effectively pursued in NSA-funded open research programs. These programs play a critical role as the major source of new ideas and for training future researchers in the field. However, NSA is pursuing more than just basic, unclassified research. NSA is also attempting to preserve the SIGINT potential of quantum computing (i.e., the cryptanalytic applications of QC) while simultaneously attempting to protect the information security of both the Government and private sectors against hostile QC attacks (i.e., the cryptographic, mission assurance applications of QC of interest to the Information Assurance community). These goals must be pursued at the classified level.

The media coverage of these leaks was minimal, and pretty dismal on spelling out the advantages of quantum over binary computers. In the former, calculations are based on quantum bits, or qubits, that can be both on and off simultaneously, exponentially increasing computational speeds over binary computers. The NSA program called ‘Penetrating Hard Targets’ sought to decrypt conventional codes but also to encrypt unbreakable ones. Using photons for quantum key distribution would also offer a level of transmission security unavailable to others, since any effort to intercept the message would disturb the polarisation of the qubit and, with it, one of the fundamental laws of quantum mechanics.

Australia might be high on the NSA’s watchlist for the next generation of signals intelligence.

As it happens, the event horizon of quantum computing is not far off in some distant galaxy or imagined apocalypse. Australia, with universities in Sydney leading the way, has become ground zero for research in this new field. Quantum is no longer confined to the experimental, microphysical, or metaphorical: it will be actual in our lifetime. The world could well be in a situation similar to 1939, when physicists first realised that nuclear fission could be weaponised. By dropping the ‘Q bomb’, Snowden may have alerted us to a danger that goes well beyond the ‘Orwellian’.

Orwell wrote at a time when Colossus, the first programmable electronic computer designed to break German ciphers during World War II, contained more than 1,500 vacuum tubes and filled an entire room in Bletchley Park. He could not possibly have imagined the technological innovations, perhaps not even the level of political acquiescence, that would allow future governments to enlist the services of the major Internet companies and other corporations to eavesdrop on such a global scale. How was, or rather, how is – given that the post-Snowden ‘reforms’ have been minimal – that possible?

To answer that question, it is useful to pair the books on Snowden with Ronald Deibert’s Black Code and P.W. Singer and Allan Friedman’s Cybersecurity and Cyberwar. Unlike Harding and Greenwald, who as journalists provide a vital first-cut of history, Deibert, Singer, and Friedman have been in the cyber-trenches almost as long there has been a cyberspace. Deibert, a scholar–activist who directs the redoubtable Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, follows on the heels of fellow-Canadian scholars Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan as one of the most perspicacious analysts of the perils and promise of the Internet. Singer and Friedman direct programs on security and technology at the Brookings Institution, and although they can get pretty wonky with policy minutiae, they have a flair for the telling anecdote and irreverent story. Their account of an early act of hacktivism (nota bene OUP: not ‘hactivism’) against the US Department of Energy in 1989, which left the message ‘You talk of times of peace for all, and then prepare for war’, signed by WANK (‘Worms Against Nuclear Killers’), is better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick for Australian fans of Julian Assange and Midnight Oil.

Snowden threeIn October 2013, four US whistleblowers visited Snowden in Moscow. They found Snowden in good spirits and at peace with his decision to leak tens of thousands of Anglo-American secrets. (L-R) Coleen Rowley, Thomas Drake, Jesselyn Radack, Sarah Harrison and Ray McGovern. (photograph by Getty)

Taking the long view, these authors provide a deeper history, a clearer account of the technology, and a less polarised view of the politics that ‘enabled’ the Snowden affair. The trauma and fear of another 9/11 (US) or 7/7 (UK) or 12/10 (Bali) terrorist attack certainly played a key role as catalyst and justification for the NSA’s pervasive surveillance régime. But to fully comprehend how surveillance programs like PRISM, UPSTREAM, TEMPORA, and STORMBREW were considered necessary and made possible, we need to understand the origins, spread, and security dimensions of cyberspace itself.

Fittingly, this story also starts with 1984, the year William Gibson coined the concept of ‘cyberspace’ in his novel Neuromancer to describe ‘a consensual hallucination, experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators ... of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system’. Digitised networks now make it possible for a neural superstructure of billions of users to connect through a critical infrastructure of cable, fibre-optic, Wi-Fi, and micro-wave, creating levels of ubiquity, proximity, and simultaneity once imaginable only in science fiction. Although one might quibble with Gibson’s tag of ‘legitimate’, his originary vision of cyberspace flashes forwards, backwards, and sideways throughout the Snowden story.

This difference is reflected in the contrast between the responses to Snowden’s leaks by traditional media and the blogosphere. Outlets as diverse as online news magazines like the Huffington Post and technology commentators like Mashable and Wired have emphasised the importance of exposing the activities of ‘No Such Agency’ to the widest possible audience. This approach has not been restricted to so-called radical ‘fringe elements’ of WikiLeaks or Internet libertarians, but has been the stance of mainstream web-based security, privacy, and technology commentators. The divergent responses of traditional and next-generation media are highlighted by the willingness of online sites to publish the full tranche of NSA slides that Snowden’s traditional media partners such as the Washington Post and even the Guardian have refused to print. In many instances online outlets have asked the difficult questions about the security, privacy, and surveillance implications of the NSA’s monitoring régime that traditional media outlets have shied away from. 

This quartet of books reveals a much more disturbing picture of a late, a very late modernity, in which the dystopic visions of Orwell and Gibson are converging in a world of über-surveillance, diminished privacy, and minimal dissent, in which governments are only one of a rogues gallery of actors seeking power, security, and profits in cyberspace. Deibert, Singer, and Friedman draw such a detailed picture of cyberspace that at times the map seems more real than the landscape. Indeed, cyberspace appears as a simulacrum that precedes and is beginning to engender a densely networked and heteropolar world, increasingly beyond control by any state, institution, or individual. The Matrix (and Skynet) come to mind more than once in these books.

Snowden image 2After more than a month stuck at Moscow's Sherematyevo airport, Russia let Snowden out and gave him one year's asylum. The photo shows him on a boat cruise on the Moscow River, with the golden domes of Christ the Saviour cathedral in the background. (Associated Press / Rossia 24)

How does the story of Snowden and cyberspace end? The happy-hippy version of cyberspace, emerging from a combination of acid, flower power, and creative soldering in northern California, viewed the marriage of the personal computer and Internet as a liberating and creative force for good. Post-Snowden, that dream has become a nightmare from which we seem unable to awaken. Perhaps for good reason: one of the most disturbing PowerPoint slides leaked by Snowden to Greenwald instructs intelligence agencies operating in cyberspace on how to engage in ‘Dissimulation – Hide the Real’ while propagating ‘Simulation – Show the False’. Just how far from Gibson’s SimStim is the NSA’s DissSim?


After reading how cyberspace has been hijacked by signal intelligence agencies, big-data corporations, cyber-criminals, and other unsavory, anti-democratic, and illegitimate operators, one wonders whether 2014 is indeed the new 1984. But which one? Orwell’s or Gibson’s? Big Brother is Watching? Or Zombies are Us?

Books reviewed here:

The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man
by Luke Harding
Guardian Books/Faber
$29.99pb, 346 pp, 9781783350353

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State
by Glenn Greenwald
Hamish Hamilton
$29.99 pb, 259 pp, 9780241146705

Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace
by Ronald Deibert
Signal
$32.99hb, 312 pp, 9780771025334

Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know
by P.W. Singer and Allan Friedman
Oxford University Press
$20.95 pb, 346 pp, 97880199918119

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to comments@australianbookreview.com.au. We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.