Encroaching Constant Surveillance 'Scares' Senior Clinton Adviser

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Some interesting remarks were made last week by Alec Ross, a senior adviser to US secretary of state Hillary Clinton. In an interview aired Thursday on C-SPAN, Ross spent a few minutes dealing with some of the big questions around surveillance technologies, control, and the Internet.

Ross acknowledged the incremental advance of "near constant surveillance" was something that personally "scares" him. He also claimed the US restricts the sale of technologies that can be used "to oppress people in countries where we have sanctions," though admitted that stopping repressive nations getting their hands on surveillance tools was difficult: "There are a lot of vendors out there now... we can restrict the sale of exports from American companies... But then they [oppressive governments] are able to turn around and buy it from another country."

He went on to add that a fundamental problem is that the surveillance industry has become a multi-billion dollar industry: "It's a very remunerative environment... Whenever you've got that much money at play, there are going to be people who are trying to make the money."

Here's a transcript (plus audio):

I think that as networking technologies become increasingly powerful and increasingly ubiquitous, their ability to oppress a people also grows. You know, you can't take a utopian view of the Internet and of network technologies. In fact, a government with malignant intent can bend these networks to infiltrate, monitor and manipulate what's happening there, and to surveil its citizens.

This is something that, let me be blunt, it really scares me. I've got a five year old, a seven year old, and a nine year old, and the world that they grow up in is going to be a very different one that the world that I did, in terms of hyper-transparency and in terms of near constant surveillance.

The responsibility of the State Department - there are a couple of things. First of all we restrict the sale of technologies which can be used to oppress people in countries where we have sanctions. In other cases there are export controls, where we can help inform the licensing of certain products and services.

But in your question you made the right point. Certain of the use of these technologies are utterly benign. So the same thing which can be used to inspect a packet to determine whether people are organising a protest can also be used to reasonably filter out spam. So you've got to remember that the very same technologies that can be used for reasonable and benign purposes can also be used for malignant purposes.

[What's an example of one of those technologies that might be restricted?]

There are a variety of different technologies that governments - the Syrian government, the Iranian government, and others - have tried to access, either from the United States or from Europe. The problem is, just to be blunt, there are a lot of vendors out there now. You know, we can restrict the sale of exports from American companies. I'm really glad that the Europeans have joined us in similarly restricting sales of a lot of things from Europe, to certain of these oppressive environments. But then they are able to turn around and buy it from another country.

You know, there are not two or three or four companies out there selling gear. And it's a very remunerative environment. I mean there are countries around the world who are spending billions - tens of billions of dollars – to try to monitor its information environment. Whenever you've got that much money at play, there are going to be people who are trying to make the money. And so this has been a big problem.

No doubt some people will be quick to call out Ross for his remarks. Why? Well, for starters, US technology used to monitor and censor the Internet has made it into the hands of despots despite US trade embargoes. Several US companies also participate in ISS World, a series of international surveillance industry conferences organised by an American businessman, where governments from all corners of the globe come to purchase the latest spy tools and learn about new surveillance techniques. And the US itself is hardly a surveillance-free zone. Serious questions remain unanswered about a new National Security Agency data centre in Utah which it is alleged will intercept and store "complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital 'pocket litter'." Not to mention the role so-called 'Fusion Centres' play across the US, monitoring 'suspicious activity' and keeping tabs on social networks. I could go on...

That said, Alec Ross is one of a tiny handful of political figures who appears to be clued up on the complex issues - political, moral, technological, legal - around surveillance and its rapid, incremental encroachment across the world. You will see few senior political figures in any country talking publicly on this topic as Ross does, and that in itself is worth something.

Last year, for instance, I interviewed Jerry Lucas, the American who organises the ISS World surveillance conferences. During the interview, extracts from which were later published in an article for the Guardian, Lucas gave some freakishly blasé responses to my questions about surveillance tools being sold to repressive governments. He was dismissive of human rights concerns, compared mass surveillance tech to "cars and trucks," and said that "you can't stop the flow of surveillance equipment." Shortly after, Alec Ross issued a stern public condemnation of the businessman's comments, telling him he should "be more thoughtful about the consequences of his beliefs. With all due respect, Mr. Lucas, people are tortured + there can be life/death consequences to sales of these products."

Of course, actions speak louder than words. More could certainly be done by legislators in the US to crack down on, and hold to account, companies exporting surveillance technology to places where it may be abused. And, as mentioned above, the US has its own serious, unresolved domestic issues regarding surveillance.

However, at the very least it is somewhat reassuring to know that there is a senior adviser in the State Dept. who seems to have a grasp on the basic fact that there is a problem. In the UK that is far from the case, which is a cause for considerable concern. I can't name one senior British political figure - or an adviser to a senior figure - who has spoken out about the myriad problems heralded by the booming surveillance industry. Advisers in London could probably learn a thing or two from Ross by trying to engage with the subject in a public forum. But I won't be counting on that happening any time soon.

1 comment:

  1. Please ask Mr Alec J Ross how many American citizens he is blocking (censoring) from his twitter timeline. Alec J Ross is engaging in censorship; otherwise, you would have heard me asking him over and over again why he is taking his expensive vacations at tax payer expense. Oh, and asking about his 180,000k salary as well.

    Have you seen such questions being asked of him? HE CENSORS.