Of Haystacks and other Magical Machines

The weather has been foul, that kind of sodden killjoy grey that makes one want to drink heavily until the sun comes out again. While contemplating my poison I decided to at least attempt a pretense at work ethic and watch Person of Interest, mainly because a couple of years ago David Cameron said this:

“I love watching, as I probably should stop telling people, crime dramas on the television. There’s hardly a crime drama where a crime is solved without using the data of a mobile communications device.”

Yes. As the leader of one of the most powerful states on the planet you really shouldn’t admit that you make policy based on shitty, dime-a-dozen Hollywood dramas. The cynic will of course instantly object that this is merely a rather awkward attempt at see-I’m-a-regular-bloke-too, and I hope this is indeed the case. Whatever it may say about the PM’s grasp on reality, the fact that fiction is used as a justification for the implementation of intrusive mass surveillance is slightly troubling. I should probably know what conceptualisations of surveillance these shows are peddling. So I settled down with a bottle of Tanqueray on ice and a cache of limes to watch the first season.
It was not good.

Not so bad that drinking myself into a stupor while starring at the wall would have been better, but definitely well into the clichéd characters, clumsy dialog and hackneyed narratives. 9/11, counter-terrorism programs, secretive billionaire IT genius With A Past, Handsome-But-Broken spec-ops With A Past, Good Cop, Bad Cop, and now we all fight The Bad Guys (TM).
The only vaguely interesting thing was the surveillance apparatus, The Machine. The Machine is, in essence, the solutionist wetdream of politicians: a magical apparatus capable of synthesising all raw data into human concepts of intent and capability, unfailing and infallible in its ability to detect threats, all the while being impervious to the power-hungry politics of people. This is, of course, laughably impossible for a great number of reasons, but a conceit is a conceit.
However, through the haze of repetitive episodes, this depiction of surveillance mirrored many of the misleading claims being made about the indiscriminate collection of people’s electronic records — all of which revolve around the problematic conceptual metaphor of the haystack.

In order to mitigate the outrage at indiscriminate and blanket collection of people’s data governments have repeatedly fallen back on that ever fascinating brainchild of ex-DNI James Clapper’s, that one must differentiate between the collection of data and the target querying — aka surveillance — thereof by analysts. Human agents only see a small portion, the needles, of what’s collected, the haystack, and therefore the surveillance isn’t indiscriminate, it’s targeted.
The Machine is the perfect embodiment of this ideal: it collects everything autonomously, and spits out individual identifications, and only of legitimate Persons of Interest.The mind-blowing thing is that even in this ideal fiction, the system’s malfunction is so absurdly monumental that it constitutes the show’s central premise: a creepy vigilante IT guy has access to the haystack and he uses the info gained to send a paramilitary killer and his corrupt cop stooges (who routinely misuse their own haystacks) after de juro innocent civilians.
In real life, haystacks aren’t nearly as well protected as The Machine is and the cases of abuse are numerous. This without even questioning the ‘sanctioned’ uses for the haystack. Point being, the idea that the collection of data doesn’t constitute surveillance because ‘innocent’ data somehow isn’t and can never be used contrary to original intent behind the program is so naive as to border on criminally incompetent.

The haystack metaphor implies the neutral ability to ignore the hay and just select and act upon the needles; turns out, the hay has a great many uses too, and access to it provides the handler with a great deal of power. Put this way: surveillance is a tool of power because it provides the watcher with information to use against the watched, it makes absolutely no difference whether it is collected by a human or a machine if there is no infallible firebreak between the data and its instrumentalisation.
Unfortunately, many critics of mass surveillance have been suckered into using this metaphor, and doing so has forced their argumentation down unhelpful paths. The frequent statement that the government’s claims that they need more straw to find all the needles just increases the straw to needle ratio and therefore makes their job harder may or may not be right, I don’t know. But their statement serves only to a) axiomatise the binary differentiation of innocent hay/guilty needle, and b) cast the quantification of the surveillance in amounts of data.
The first point — so central to the fascist statement “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” — is impossible for even The Magic Machine, the perfect incarnation of this misleading metaphor, to realise. At the very least there is innocent hay, guilty but irrelevant hay, and terrorist neeedles. No doubt there’s more than that; the narrative will undoubtedly begin incorporating a more agential role by The Machine, at which point it is for all intents and purposes no different from a human seeing all shades of subterfuge, relative misconduct… and potential for leverage. All information has the potential to shift a power differential: knowledge is power, and the firebreak doesn’t work as advertised. So maybe the counter-terrorism machine is being clogged by non-terrorist hay, I couldn’t say; but it is amassing a vast haystack of otherwise potentially power-magnifying information that could easily be used against the great majority of us who fall between such stark poles. Remember McCarthy?

The second point refers to the false conceptualisation of the size and extent of mass surveillance in terms of quantity of data. The apparent fascination with the amounts of data being collected has allowed the British government to get away with a particularly devious bit of rebranding: ‘bulk’ collection. We’ve already dealt with the term ‘collection,’ but ‘bulk’ is a different case. Theresa May has been suspiciously vehement that they’re not engaging in ‘mass surveillance’ but merely ‘bulk collection of data.’ This should give pause.
This is no random synonym, oh no. ‘Bulk’ stands in opposition to ‘single,’ but specifically of objects, not people: it refers to an amount of data. Thus while tacitly, ever-so-barely, admitting that the UK government indiscriminately collects data, it semantically shifts the focus away from the indiscriminate surveillance of people.
‘Bulk collection’ is particularly fiendish because it allows the privileged to think that although untargeted surveillance is happening, it doesn’t effect everyone and therefore certainly not them. “Mass surveillance” is actively denied not just because of this bullshit differentiation between surveillance and collection, but also because ‘mass’ powerfully implies that an indiscriminate range of people are being watched, not just the data of those minorities no one cares about: and/or Muslims, people of colour, poor people, women, who make up the vast majority of the overt victims of surveillance.

This latest revelation by Privacy International of the UK collection of ‘Bulk Personal Datasets‘ is but more proof: your data is being collected, this is mass surveillance, it is not secure against use by those interested in more than counter-terrorism (whatever that that  is) and certainly not against changes in law with which future leaders may no longer look so benevolently upon you/your privilege.

Never forget who invented the conceptual metaphor of the haystack. Do not engage the enemy on their terms, always start by questioning their premises. Hay is not innocuous. In fact, needles are a distraction: hay is where the real power lies. Beware those who tell you otherwise. To re-interpret the great Penny Red: there are all too many haystacks, and none of them are on fire.

But its only metadata, right?
Ho ho ho


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