We Now Know The NSA And GCHQ Have Subverted Most (All?) Of The Digital World: So Why Can't We See Any Benefits?

from the less-is-more dept

As Mike pointed out recently, thanks to Snowden (and possibly other sources), we now know the NSA, with some help from GCHQ, has subverted just about every kind of digital electronic device where it is useful to do so -- the latest being hard drives and mobile phones. That's profoundly shocking when you consider what most non-paranoid observers thought the situation was as recently as a couple of years ago. However, given that's how things stand, there are a couple of interesting ramifications.

First, that the recent attempts by politicians to demonize strong encryption look like an attempt to cover up the fact that most digital systems are already vulnerable using one or more of the techniques that have been revealed over the last year or two. That is, the NSA and GCHQ can probably access most digital content stored or transmitted in any way -- either because the encryption itself or the end-points have been compromised. Even standalone strong encryption systems like PGP -- thought still to be immune to direct attacks -- can be circumvented by breaking into the systems on which they are used.

Perhaps the dark hints that encryption could be banned or backdoored are simply part of a cynical ploy to present such an appalling vision of what could happen, that we gladly accept anything less extreme without complaint. In fact, the authorities have no intention of attempting anything so stupid -- it would put all online business at risk -- because they don't need to: they already have methods to access everything anyway.

That being the case, there is another important question. If the NSA and other parties do have ways of turning practically every digital electronic device into a system for spying on its users, that essentially means there is no criminal organization in the world -- ranging from the so-called "terrorist" ones that are used to justify so much bad policy currently, to the "traditional" ones that represent the bulk of the real threat to society -- that is not vulnerable to being infiltrated and subverted by government agencies.

And yet we don't see this happen. Drug cartels thrive; people trafficking is surging; the smuggling of ivory and endangered animals is profitable as never before. Similarly, despite the constant and sophisticated monitoring of events across the Middle East, the rise of Islamic State evidently took the US and its allies completely by surprise. How is it that global criminality has not been brought to its knees, or that such massive geopolitical developments were not picked up well in advance -- and nipped in the bud?

One obvious explanation for this pattern is that just as the attackers of London, Boston, Paris and Copenhagen were all known to the authorities, so early tell-tale signs of the rise of Islamic State were detected, but remained drowned out by the sheer volume of similar and confounding information that was being gathered. Similarly, it is presumably easy to create huge stores of information on drug bosses or people smugglers -- but hard to find enough personnel to analyze and act on that data mountain.

Now that we have a better idea of the extraordinary reach of the global surveillance being carried out at all times, the failure of that activity to make us safer by countering criminal activity, at whatever scale, becomes all the more striking. It's time the intelligence agencies accepted that the "collect it all" approach is not just failing, but actually exactly wrong: what we need is not more surveillance, but much less of it and much better targeted.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

Filed Under: gchq, nsa, surveillance


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Feb 2015 @ 3:30pm

    The purpose of the surveillance state is not to fight "crime" as such, but to maintain the status quo. The status quo we live with today is the greater and greater concentration of wealth and capital into fewer and fewer hands. While the powers that be have been able to maintain at least some political legitimacy over the past 40 years, it is possible that the situation for the non-elites will become so untenable that they will try to redress the balance -- whether they do that via peaceful, political means or otherwise, neither tactic is acceptable to the elite if the possibility exists that either tactic will slow the flow of wealth into their hands.

    Should a threatening populist movement arise, the elites have all the tools they need to kill it with a thousand cuts (blackmail, agent provocateurs, etc). Should a violent revolt start to bubble up, those same tools can be used to imprison the perpetrators before a shot is fired.

    Ultimately, they don't care about drugs and human trafficking because they make money off those things (just ask HSBC or your local police department). They don't care what's going on in the Middle East because they don't live there, and they can just as easily exploit the chaos as they could a calm. They don't care about the Boston bombing because no one they care about very much was hurt.

    In short, they want to keep the world situation the way it is because it benefits them, and surveillance is something that allows them to keep it that way.

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