Surveillance Concerns: The Good, the Bad, and the Xenophobic

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, December 28, 2021

Thom Hartmann has written an enormous number of great books, and the latest is no exception. It’s called The Hidden History of Big Brother in America: How the Death of Privacy and the Rise of Surveillance Threaten Us and Our Democracy. Thom is not the least bit xenophobic, paranoid, or war-inclined. He dishes out criticism — most of it clearly well-merited — to numerous governments including the one in Washington, D.C. Yet I think this new book provides a useful example of a problem deeply rooted in U.S. culture. If you happen not to identify with 4% of humanity or believe that it possesses anything resembling a democracy, as the book’s title wants you to do, you may come at the topic of surveillance from an angle that sees harm as well as good in the way in which U.S. liberals often object to surveillance.

Big Brother in America contains brilliant passages on familiar themes for Hartmann readers: racism, slavery, monopoly, the “war” on drugs, etc. And it properly focuses concerns on the spying done by governments, corporations, and such devices as home alarms, baby monitors, cell phones, games, TVs, fitness watches, talking Barbie dolls, etc., on corporations making less desirable customers wait on hold longer, on websites changing the prices for products to match what they expect someone will pay, on medical devices feeding data to insurance companies, on facial recognition profiling, on social media pushing users toward ever more extreme views, and on the question of what impact it has on people’s behavior to know or fear they are under surveillance.

But somewhere along the way, protecting people from the abuse of power by corrupt governments and corporations is merged with protecting a corrupt government from imaginary or exaggerated foreign threats. And this merger seems to facilitate a forgetting of the fact that an over-abundance of government secrecy is at least as big a problem as a shortage of privacy. Hartmann worries what President Donald Trump’s careless use of a cell phone may have revealed to foreign governments. I worry what it may have concealed from the U.S. public. Hartmann writes that “[t]here isn’t a government in the world that doesn’t have secrets that, if revealed, would damage the national security of that country.” Yet, nowhere does he define “national security” or explain why we should care about it. He merely says: “Be it military, trade, or political, governments routinely conceal information for reasons both bad and good.” Yet some governments have no militaries, some view a governmental merger with “trade” as fascistic, and some are built on the idea that politics is the last thing that should be kept secret (what does it even mean to keep politics secret?). What would be a good reason for any of this secrecy?

Of course, Hartmann believes (page 93, completely sans argument or footnotes, as is the norm) that Russian President Vladimir Putin helped Trump win the 2016 election — not even that Putin wanted to help or tried to help but that he helped, a claim for which there exists no evidence, which may be why none is ever offered. In fact, Hartmann believes that the Russian government “may” have locked in a still-existing “years-long Russian presence inside our systems.” This deep fear that someone from the wrong part of the planet might find out what the U.S. government is doing reads to most good liberals as reason for hostility toward Russia or even as reason for tough laws on cyber-attacks — though never, ever, ever awareness of the fact that Russia has proposed banning cyber attacks for years and been rejected by the U.S. government. To me, in contrast, this problem suggests a need to make a government’s doings public, to make government transparent to the people supposedly in charge of a so-called democracy. Even the story of how the Democratic Party was cheating Senator Bernie Sanders out of a fair shot at a nomination — the story that Russiagate was concocted to distract from — was a reason for less secrecy, not more. We should have known what was going on, been grateful to whoever told us what was going on, and tried to remember and even do something about what was going on.

Hartmann goes on to tell the story of the 2014 coup in Ukraine with the obligatory absence of any mention of the coup. Hartmann seems less than careful with the facts, exaggerating what’s new and different about technology today, including by suggesting that only through the use of the latest technology can anyone get the facts wrong. “Incitement of racial hatred, for example, would land most people in jail, but is allowed to proliferate on Facebook . . . ” No, it wouldn’t. Outlandish claims about Chinese abuse of Uighurs are included based on quoting a Guardian report that “it’s believed . . . that.” Slavery is a “natural outgrowth” of agriculture, despite the lack of correlation between the two in world history and pre-history. And how do we test the claim that Frederick Douglass would not have learned to read if his owners had possessed today’s surveillance tools?

The gravest danger and greatest focus of the book is Trump-campaign, micro-targeted Facebook ads, with all sorts of conclusions drawn, even though “it’s impossible to know how consequential they were.” Among the conclusions is that the targeting of Facebook ads makes “any sort of psychological resistance nearly impossible” despite the fact that this is claimed by numerous authors expounding on why and how we must resist Facebook ads, which I and most people I ask have generally or entirely ignored — even though that’s nearly impossible.

Hartmann quotes a Facebook employee claiming that Facebook was responsible for electing Trump. But the Trump election was extremely narrow. A great many things made the difference. It looks very likely that sexism made the difference, that voters in two key states viewing Hillary Clinton as too war-prone made the difference, that Trump lying and keeping a number of nasty secrets made the difference, that giving Bernie Sanders’ supporters the shaft made the difference, that the electoral college made the difference, that the reprehensible long public career of Hillary Clinton made the difference, that the corporate media’s taste for Trump-created ratings made the difference. Any one of these things (and many more) making the difference doesn’t suggest that all the others didn’t also make the difference. So, let’s not give too much weight to what Facebook supposedly did. Let’s ask, however, for some evidence that it did it.

Hartmann tries to suggest that events announced on Facebook by Russian trolls made the difference, without any actual evidence, and later in the book admitting that “[n]obody’s sure to this day (other, probably, than Facebook)” who announced certain non-existent “Black Antifa” events. Hartmann offers little to no evidence for the repeated claim that foreign governments are responsible in some meaningful way for the spread of crackpot conspiracy fantasies on U.S. social media — even though the crackpot fantasies don’t have any less proof behind them than do the claims about who has spread them.

Hartmann recounts the U.S.-Israeli “Stuxnet” cyber-attack on Iran as the first major such attack. He describes it as stimulating a huge Iranian investment in similar cyber-attack tools, and blames/credits Iran, Russia, and China for various attacks asserted by the U.S. government. We’re all expected to choose which bits of the claims of which of these lying scheming governments is true. I know two true things here:

1) My interest in personal privacy and the ability to freely assemble and protest is very different from a government’s right to keep what it’s doing in my name with my money secret.

2) The arrival of cyberwar does not erase other forms of war. Hartmann writes that “The risk/reward calculation for cyberwar is so much better than for nuclear war that it’s probable that nuclear warfare has become an anachronism.” Sorry, but nuclear warfare never made rational sense. Ever. And investment in it and preparations for it are rising swiftly.

It seems to me that we should talk about the surveillance of people separately from talking about international cyber-attacks and militarism. Everyone seems to do a much better job at the former. When the latter gets mixed in, the patriotism seems to pervert the priorities. Do we want to disempower the surveillance state or further empower it? Do we want to bust up big tech or give it funding to help it fend off the evil foreigners? Governments that want to abuse their people without protest simply adore foreign enemies. You don’t have to adore them, but should at least realize what purpose they are serving.

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