In Which Civil Society is Caught Between a Cop and a Spy

Law enforcement surveillance is inseparable from state intelligence, and civil society has misunderstood both the dual nature of surveillance and the size of the demand they're making.

The role of surveillance in law enforcement is to gather evidence required for a conviction. Enforcement of law requires the state to either know of or suspect a violation of the law has occurred. State intelligence has no such requirement; instead, it operates in the territory of unknown unknowns, attempting to parse the world in whatever ways the decisions of the state require.

Intelligence is a fundamental requirement for the modern state. Without it, the state is blind, unable to understand its place in an inherently adversarial structure. The state, which must attempt to preserve its territorial integrity, territorial monopoly on (some) force, and sovereignty of action, requires information about the actions of those adversaries known and unknown who may attempt to infringe on any of these structures. [...] In a more perfect world, international law and treaty would guarantee this space of action, but the dream of rule of law at the geopolitical level died with Oppenheimer. [...]

This need for intelligence is implicit but unstated in the Westphalian compromise. The Peace of Westphalia, brought about in 1648, defined the agency of the state and a theory of non-interference. In practice, however, the Westphalian state set the rules around the power monopolies that the state must attempt to maintain. If a state cannot fulfill its Westphalian duties, it ceases to perform statedom; we call it a failed state if it is still independent and see it annexed into another state if it is not. [...]

In asking all states to confine themselves to only surveil as a law enforcement tactic, and to in effect do no international intelligence work (for intelligence can clearly not operate within these bound), the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communication Surveillance ask for nothing less than the end of the Westphalian compromise and the creation of a new fundamental theory of geopolitical power and the monopoly on violence. [...] However, we dismantle the state without understanding the structures we propose to replace it at our extreme peril, and the principles do not speak to this topic at all.

If we wish to have a debate as to the basic structure of power we'd see replace the Westphalian state (and, necessarily also the structure that replaces the capitalist entity, for the two cannot be replaced separately), by all means, let's do so. However, if we pretend to the utopian notion that we can decline this debate while still proposing the end to surveillance and thus intelligence, we reveal ourselves to not understand the first thing about the world in which we're playing. As civil society, we do ourselves no favors by demonstrating our irrelevance.

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7 Responses:

  1. Jon Millett says:

    Not buying it. Where is the extreme peril?

    What about the benefits to the state of trust? Is the state's power not enhanced by having transparency and clear expectations for privacy?

    In the longer term, it seems like states and mega-corps are all merging into a single entity. We need solutions that maintain the balance of power of the individual and the state.

  2. Barry Kelly says:

    What a load of fanstasist, statist, fascistic-fetish balderdash. There's actionable information as used for state actions, and then there's the intelligence community. Using the same word for both creates an illusion that they're about the same things.

    The former is a basic requirement for government, sure, but it's supplied by polling the public, think-thanks, paid advisers, foreign embassies and their networking activities, and other civil servants.

    The latter is about SIGINT and HUMINT, is speculative, and often wildly wrong. Think Iraq dossier. It's at its most important when there are existential threats and the actions it informs have significance. Terrorism is never an existential threat, by definition; the goal is terror, not destruction. When the threats are insignificant, its purpose is mostly political: an excuse for pork, an excuse for war, or worse.

    Oh, and Oppenheimer ended great power war. Nukes are the reason fewer people than ever are dying in wars. MAD created peace where people could not.

    • Andy says:

      Ella is many things, but "statist" is ... rather far from resembling the truth.

      MAD didn't end great power war; it merely increased the variance, and we haven't had the bad luck to land under the taller-and-narrower bell curve yet.

  3. deathdrone says:

    I did military intelligence research and development (haha?) for eight years.

    This one time we bought a $1.5M computer cluster that we didn't need, just to spend money. The cluster caught on fire, so we bought another one. Never actually used it for anything.

    One of my bosses was totally obsessed with the idea that "the terrorists" were sending secret messages "through the television." Another couple million on that one that I know about, possibly way more.

    I once had to sit through a 30 minute company presentation about why arabs are stupid. I really don't think I'm exaggerating at all.

    I guess I also worked on a bunch of surveillance stuff too, but it was so fucking dumb that I just don't really know what to say. A whole lot of people talking in a language that no one knows and no one actually has any reason to give a single fuck about. We blew like 60 million on this one project over a few years and I can't remember a single instance of anyone actually looking at the data. Why the fuck would they?

    As far as I can tell, the wars we fight are about race more than anything else. The racism that exists in the intelligence community is so far off the scale that it's not even believable. If it sounds crazy, I guess you'll have to ask yourself: crazy compared to what? Why the hell else would we be fighting all these ridiculous wars?

    But the rooms full of rich republicans really believe in what they're doing. That's the fucking eeriest thing about it. Despite the utter absurdity we swallowed every single day, I never once detected a trace of hesitation or doubt from ANYONE. Everyone just knew that we were doing the right thing. It was a pretty fucking powerful lesson. Who's running the ship? Crazy is running the ship. Powerful unconscious racist delusions are running the ship. I mean, what, you guys think all the dumbshit republicans at the top are actually THINKING about what they're doing?

    When "the enemy" is fundamentally innocent, "military intelligence" is basically just a bunch of lies we tell ourselves to feel better about bombing the shit out of them. Even if we take it for granted that bombing a bunch of random sand niggers is a good thing, there still isn't any real "intelligence" to collect. How can we perform a "targeted strike" when the entire population is unified against us by fear and righteous fury, thus making all of them dangerous and legitimate targets?

    I tentatively believe that all the money we spend on military intelligence would be better spent if we just set it on fire. After eight years of work on multiple projects and hearing all kinds of talk around the water cooler, I cannot remember a single instance of ANYONE'S work ever having a noticeable "intelligent" effect on the world at all.

    But I think it's a very subtle question. We sure did produce a fuckton of false positives. And maybe that's the whole point? Evolution obviously thinks it's really damn important for us to be fighting all these wars. And I don't think she's ever wrong when it comes to stuff like this.

    And evolution also seems to think it's very important that we be utterly deluded on the topic as well. So what does that mean? Dunno. Hard question.

    • gryazi says:

      Man, re: 'arabs are stupid', on my own personal whiteguy feelgood note, back around 1999 I took a 'Global Societies and Cultures' class [taught by a generally considerate and awesome Vietnam vet, no less] which was pretty much intended to introduce sheltered suburban kids to the actual cultural baggage people from other parts of the planet are likely to be coming with. But by the end it pretty much devolved into 'here is a review of this decade's stereotypes as opposed to the rejected stereotypes of previous decades.'

      I got a few paragraphs into the final paper (my topic: 'mexicans are hard workers not lazy wetbacks, or something') before realizing the 'cultural background' stuff was good but the words coming out were utter bullshit and I had to stop. (If I'd been more committed maybe I could've turned it around and gone in the right direction with it, but the epiphany was satisfying enough at the time.)

      I still remember how the section on the middle east started with "most families over there are pretty religious and stuff" and ended with the "so they only respect power" line from Gulf War 1.0.

      Of course, most of those Republicans you're bitching about are from my parents' boomer generation when they actually still 'studied' "the four races of man" in public schools so it's relatively easy to maintain the delusion that that kind of thinking is "educated" ("I KNOW ABOUT THE WORLD I READ A TEXTBOOK ONCE") rather than delusional.

      Still not sure if wasting money on spooky crap and 'targeted strikes' is actually worse than investing it in the firebombing of Dresden though [except for the whole question of why the fuck we get involved in the first place]. Evolution doesn't 'think' about anything, it's just a name for whose zygotes get formed and stick around.