Silicon Valley Will Not Save You from the Surveillance State

There was something quite odd about the very welcome news that some Google employees were objecting to a military contract, namely all the other Google military contracts. My sense of the oddness of this was heightened by reading Yasha Levine’s new book, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet.

I invited Levine on my radio show (it will air in the coming weeks) and asked him what he thought was motivating the revolt over at Google. Were they objecting to a particular kind of weapon, in the manner that some people rather bizarrely object to drones only if they are automated but not if a human pushes the murder button? Were they actually clueless about their own company?

Levine’s answer requires investigation but certainly makes an interesting hypothesis. He said that all during the Obama years, the tech press and community aired no concerns whatsoever about militarism, whereas since the arrival of Trump such talk is to be heard and read. Levine maintains that Google employees do not object to militarism, they object to Trumpian militarism.

I had hoped for and wrongly predicted this phenomenon in the general public the moment Trump gained the throne. Is it possible that it’s finally begun, but begun in Silicon Valley?

Levine’s book describes Google and other internet corporations as major military and spy contractors from the beginning. Google partnered with Lockheed Martin on parts of the war on Iraq and is a major partner of the military, the CIA, the NSA, etc. Surveillance Valley goes back to the post-WWII origins of today’s military madness. Military experiments as preparation for war, “field tested” in Vietnam, and supported by President Kennedy as appropriately hi-tech and modern, were actually war and developed into one of the worst wars ever seen. Vietnam was mass-surveilled — or the attempt was made and foiled with bags of urine and other low-tech tricks.

Tools developed in Vietnam were immediately applied against U.S. citizens, especially those trying to improve the United States in any way. And the overabundance of data drove the development of computers that could handle it. Spying on everyone is not an enterprise tacked onto the computerized world; it’s why we have a computerized world. Arpanet is not a secretive predecessor of the internet that was used by the military and became known after the internet mushroomed. It’s a project that was publicly reported on as a major mass surveillance threat in 1975. The connecting of computers with each other was feared as a tool of tyranny. Congressional hearings were held.

By the 1990s computer wizardry, which had been seen as an arm of a threatening military-police state was romanticized as rebellious “hacking,” an image transformation the enormity of which has been overlooked because we’re in it. Nowadays the supposed inability of certain computers to be hooked up together is used as an excuse for keeping refugee kids separated from their families, and our immediate reaction is to say: Well hook those computers together, already!

The internet was not just developed in large part by the military, but also privately for the military. It was privatized without much public debate, an enormous giveaway to which the destruction of net-neutrality is just a final scene. The search and advertising interests of companies like Google have long overlapped almost exactly the surveillance interests of the U.S. government, while so contradicting the public image desired by Google that Google has kept its basic functions tightly secret.

That changed in a way when Edward Snowden revealed that all our favorite internet companies were working with the NSA on its PRISM program to spy on us. But, as Levine recounts and objects to, Snowden chose for his libertarian ideological reasons not to support any legal regulation of these “private,” contracted companies. He chose to blame only the government and to in fact promote private companies as the answer, technology as the ultimate solution.

But Levine shows that Tor and Signal and other companies that Snowden and many others promote as a means to protect your privacy from the government (as well as to hide all kinds of immoral and criminal enterprises) have themselves been U.S. military projects from the start, are themselves U.S. military contractors, and also do not work — at least not remotely to the extent that people tend to imagine. I’ll leave debating the details of Tor to those capable of and interested in such matters, but will simply note a few obvious points.

First, nonviolent activist organizing succeeds when it is open and public and grows large. Secrecy has always been a danger to organizing, and technology doesn’t change that.

Second, there has never been an arms or technology race in which one side achieved permanent eternal victory, and it makes no sense for well-intentioned whistleblowers and journalists to imagine they’ve achieved such a thing.

Third, even lacking such magical technological weapons (or what Levine calls the NRA solution to social problems: everybody get a good gun) we do have other tools at our disposal, including honesty, courage, factual and moral persuasion, community, inspiring models of caring and success, and of course the open internet to any extent that it remains open.

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