Surveillance, Britain's Secret Agencies, and Drowning in Data

Thursday, 25 October 2012

I was speaking to someone today about this, and it occurred to me that it is a piece of information that is not widely known but should be.

Every year in Britain, there is an official report that comes out detailing the activities of the UK's spy agencies — MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. It is authored by a group of politicians who function as a kind of oversight authority, under the name the Intelligence and Security Committee.

In this year's report, published in July, I noticed a section of particular interest in light of new proposals for more surveillance powers in the UK. The second paragraph is what is important here — it is a comment made by Jonathan Evans, chief of domestic security agency MI5.

The Security Service is undertaking a number of major projects covering estates, business continuity, core IT systems and improving its digital investigative capabilities. A notable success during the reporting period was the completion of the Digital Intelligence (DIGINT) programme, which aimed to improve systems for the collection and analysis of intelligence material gathered electronically. The Director General explained:

"One of the things that really drove us on the investment of DIGINT was a discussion where the relevant directors explained that actually, of all the material that we’ve caught, over half was not being processed. Now, as an intelligence organisation, that’s a nightmare. I mean, quite frankly, I would rather not have the intelligence at all and miss something than have the intelligence and not actually having processed it… We have made real progress on that, and I’m very proud on DIGINT." (Emphasis added)

What this comment suggests, for the sake of clarity, is that the UK's spy agencies in recent years have been mining and storing quantities of electronic data — or "digital intelligence" — so large that they have not been able to analyse it. The data, most of it I would expect is mined from the internet, has probably been gathered and then left to sit and gather digital dust in a secret storeroom somewhere. The claim from Evans in the above quote is that MI5 has worked to address the problem as part of a new programme, which presumably involves a great deal of automated analysis. But the statement also illustrates how new surveillance powers currently being proposed in the UK could pose problems for the UK if the security services are already near a point where they are drowning in data.

There tends to be two main schools of thought within the intelligence community. Some believe that targeted surveillance of specific individuals and groups is the best method, because it provides information that can be dissected and acted upon fairly quickly by human analysts. The other school of thought, and the one which seems to be prevailing, is that a kind of dragnet surveillance is superior. What this entails is gathering huge quantities of data based on key words, locations, phrases, and then mining through it to find anything useful. From a rights and civil liberties perspective, targeted surveillance is clearly more attractive because it is likely to involve much less intrusion of innocent individuals' communications. But rights and civil liberties do not appear to be high on the agenda at our secret agencies, and so what we get is something closer to the dragnet option.

I should add that surveillance in the UK is not without regulation. To intercept domestic communications, police and security services require ministerial authorisation, and must show that any interception is in the interests of national security, safeguarding economic well being, or to prevent and detect serious crime. That said, these justifications are fairly broad, and there were 2,911 interception warrants granted in 2011 — but any one warrant can cover countless individuals, so we actually have little idea how many people had their communications snooped on. (Also, to monitor content posted on social networks and other "open source" websites, there are no laws or restrictions at all. So websites like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare are all fair game for the likes of MI5's "DIGINT" team to gather data from.)

Groupthink in Illinois

Monday, 22 October 2012

In May 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, the writer and journalist Chris Hedges was invited to give a speech at a graduation ceremony at Rockford College in the US state of Illinois. Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winner who was at that time a reporter for the New York Times, used the occasion to share his assessment of the invasion and the implications of it. The reaction he received was nothing short of extraordinary. He was booed and subjected to a volley of abuse as people turned their backs on him in protest.

I had never heard about the incident until I was reading up about Hedges the other day. I managed to find a video recording of it (links below), and the footage is quite jawdropping — something I think future generations will be able to look back at in order to study the violent, jingoistic climate that polluted sections of American society following the terror attacks on New York in September, 2001.

Hedges' comments were not actually that controversial — it's just that they deviated from the kind of tub-thumping groupthink that dominated mainstream discourse particularly in the lead up to, and in the immediate aftermath of, the Iraq invasion. His speech was a prophetic, critical analysis of what the invasion, in his view, would lead to. He warned the crowd of Americans, young and old, that "we are embarking on an occupation that if history is any guide will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige and power and security." He said: "we have blundered into a nation we know little about, are caught between bitter rivalries and competing groups and leaders we do not understand," adding:

We are trying to transplant a modern system of politics invented in Europe — characterised among other things by the division of the Earth into the independent secular states based on national citizenship — in a land where the belief in a secular civil government is an alien creed. Iraq was a cesspool for the British when they occupied it in 1917. It will be a cesspool for us as well.
Within about two minutes Hedges was getting booed. People in the audience began shouting things like "moron" at him, and eventually large sections of the crowd stood up and turned their backs. The microphone plug was pulled on a couple of occasions, with a member of the college's staff having to step in to ask that people please give Hedges time to speak. He eventually managed to finish, but not before one or two people attempted to rush the stage as others shouted things like "USA! USA! USA!", "God bless America", and "get him off the stage!"

Astonishingly, in the days after the incident, the president of the college, Paul Pribbenow, issued an apology to the students (not to Hedges). He circulated a letter telling them that: "Unfortunately, our commencement address this past Saturday did not focus on your educational accomplishments and the challenges you will meet in the future ... Our speaker presented his ideas in a style that suggested the day was about him and not you. For this, I am very sorry." And Hedges' then-employer, the New York Times, accused him of breaching its "ethics code" because he had "engaged in public discourse concerning his political or personal views." (He ended up leaving the newspaper, largely due to the critical position he took on Iraq. Ironically, in 2004, the Times published an apology for its Iraq coverage, telling readers that some of its reporting on the threats allegedly posed by Iraq, used to justify the invasion, had been "insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged ... we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.")

Though the college's president told his students that Hedges' speech on that day was about "him and not you" and had no bearing on the "challenges you will meet in the future," saying so was myopic and wrong. Granted, the speech was hardly an uplifting one for a graduation day. But it was hardly a self-interested rant. It was clear to me that Hedges was attempting to communicate something meaningful and important to the students about the dark turn the US was taking into dangerous and tumultuous territory — which had a direct bearing on their future as young American graduates.

Despite the booing, the jeering, the back-turning and the microphone unplugging, most of what Hedges said on that day has turned out to be accurate. I reported earlier this year that the attempt to transplant a western-style democracy in Iraq has led to sectarian divisions, heightened violence and corruption — not to mention an appalling death toll of more than 100,000 civilian dead. Like Hedges predicted, Iraq did become a "cesspool" for the US and the allied forces, which is ultimately why Barack Obama's administration was forced to pull out last December. It has not brought peace to the region, and nor has it lessened the threat of terrorism or led to a world that is more stable and secure.

When it emerged that the case for the invasion of Iraq had been built on disinformation, I wonder what those people who turned their backs on Hedges thought about. When they read that an estimated 35,000 civilians died in the first three months, along with countless young American soldiers, I wonder if they regretted their actions. And I wonder if almost a decade on since the invasion they would today listen to Hedges' analysis and still decry him as a "moron." I doubt it.

Watch/read the speech here: part one; part two; part three; part four; transcript.