A prime justification for surveillance – that it’s for the benefit of the population – relies on projecting a view of the world that divides citizens into categories of good people and bad people. In that view, the authorities use their surveillance powers only against bad people, those who are “doing something wrong”, and only they have anything to fear from the invasion of their privacy. This is an old tactic. In a 1969 Time magazine article about Americans’ growing concerns over the US government’s surveillance powers, Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, assured readers that “any citizen of the United States who is not involved in some illegal activity has nothing to fear whatsoever”.
The point was made again by a White House spokesman, responding to the 2005 controversy over Bush’s illegal eavesdropping programme: “This is not about monitoring phone calls designed to arrange Little League practice or what to bring to a potluck dinner. These are designed to monitor calls from very bad people to very bad people.” And when Barack Obama appeared on The Tonight Show in August 2013 and was asked by Jay Leno about NSA revelations, he said: “We don’t have a domestic spying programme. What we do have is some mechanisms that can track a phone number or an email address that is connected to a terrorist attack.”
For many, the argument works. The perception that invasive surveillance is confined only to a marginalised and deserving group of those “doing wrong” – the bad people – ensures that the majority acquiesces to the abuse of power or even cheers it on. But that view radically misunderstands what goals drive all institutions of authority. “Doing something wrong” in the eyes of such institutions encompasses far more than illegal acts, violent behaviour and terrorist plots. It typically extends to meaningful dissent and any genuine challenge. It is the nature of authority to equate dissent with wrongdoing, or at least with a threat.
The record is suffused with examples of groups and individuals being placed under government surveillance by virtue of their dissenting views and activism – Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, anti-war activists, environmentalists. In the eyes of the government and J Edgar Hoover’s FBI, they were all “doing something wrong”: political activity that threatened the prevailing order.
The FBI’s domestic counterintelligence programme, Cointelpro, was first exposed by a group of anti-war activists who had become convinced that the anti-war movement had been infiltrated, placed under surveillance and targeted with all sorts of dirty tricks. Lacking documentary evidence to prove it and unsuccessful in convincing journalists to write about their suspicions, they broke into an FBI branch office in Pennsylvania in 1971 and carted off thousands of documents.
Files related to Cointelpro showed how the FBI had targeted political groups and individuals it deemed subversive and dangerous, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, black nationalist movements, socialist and communist organizations, anti-war protesters and various rightwing groups. The bureau had infiltrated them with agents who, among other things, attempted to manipulate members into agreeing to commit criminal acts so that the FBI could arrest and prosecute them.
Those revelations led to the creation of the Senate Church Committee, which concluded: “[Over the course of 15 years] the bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilate operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of first amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.”
These incidents were not aberrations of the era. During the Bush years, for example, documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealed, as the group put it in 2006, “new details of Pentagon surveillance of Americans opposed to the Iraq war, including Quakers and student groups”. The Pentagon was “keeping tabs on non-violent protesters by collecting information and storing it in a military anti-terrorism database”. The evidence shows that assurances that surveillance is only targeted at those who “have done something wrong” should provide little comfort, since a state will reflexively view any challenge to its power as wrongdoing.
The opportunity those in power have to characterise political opponents as “national security threats” or even “terrorists” has repeatedly proven irresistible. In the past decade, the government, in an echo of Hoover’s FBI, has formally so designated environmental activists, broad swaths of anti-government rightwing groups, anti-war activists, and associations organised around Palestinian rights. Some individuals within those broad categories may deserve the designation, but undoubtedly most do not, guilty only of holding opposing political views. Yet such groups are routinely targeted for surveillance by the NSA and its partners.
One document from the Snowden files, dated 3 October 2012, chillingly underscores the point. It revealed that the agency has been monitoring the online activities of individuals it believes express “radical” ideas and who have a “radicalising” influence on others. The memo discusses six individuals in particular, all Muslims, though it stresses that they are merely “exemplars”.
The NSA explicitly states that none of the targeted individuals is a member of a terrorist organisation or involved in any terror plots. Instead, their crime is the views they express, which are deemed “radical”, a term that warrants pervasive surveillance and destructive campaigns to “exploit vulnerabilities”.
Among the information collected about the individuals, at least one of whom is a “US person”, are details of their online sex activities and “online promiscuity” – the porn sites they visit and surreptitious sex chats with women who are not their wives. The agency discusses ways to exploit this information to destroy their reputations and credibility.
The NSA’s treatment of Anonymous, as well as the vague category of people known as “hacktivists”, is especially troubling and extreme. That’s because Anonymous is not actually a structured group but a loosely organised affiliation of people around an idea: someone becomes affiliated with Anonymous by virtue of the positions they hold. Worse still, the category “hacktivists” has no fixed meaning: it can mean the use of programming skills to undermine the security and functioning of theinternet but can also refer to anyone who uses online tools to promote political ideals. That the NSA targets such broad categories of people is tantamount to allowing it to spy on anyone anywhere, including in the US, whose ideas the government finds threatening.
Gabriella Coleman, a specialist on Anonymous at McGill University, said that the group “is not a defined” entity but rather “an idea that mobilises activists to take collective action and voice political discontent. It is a broad-based global social movement with no centralised or official organised leadership structure. Some have rallied around the name to engage in digital civil disobedience, but nothing remotely resembling terrorism.”
Yet Anonymous has been targeted by a unit of GCHQ that employs some of the most controversial and radical tactics known to spycraft: “false flag operations”, “honeytraps”, viruses and other attacks, strategies of deception and “info ops to damage reputations”.
One PowerPoint slide presented by GCHQ surveillance officials at the 2012 SigDev conference describes two forms of attack: “information ops (influence or disruption)” and “technical disruption”. GCHQ refers to these measures as “Online Covert Action”, which is intended to achieve what the document calls “The 4 Ds: Deny/Disrupt/Degrade/Deceive”.
Another slide describes the tactics used to “discredit a target”. These include “set up a honeytrap”, “change their photos on social networking sites”, “write a blog purporting to be one of their victims” and “email/text their colleagues, neighbours, friends, etc”. In accompanying notes,GCHQ explains that the “honeytrap” – an old cold war tactic involving using attractive women to lure male targets into compromising, discrediting situations – has been updated for the digital age: now a target is lured to a compromising site or online encounter. The comment added: “a great option. Very successful when it works.” Similarly, traditional methods of group infiltration are now accomplished online.
Another technique involves stopping “someone from communicating”. To do that, the agency will “bombard their phone with text messages”, “bombard their phone with calls”, “delete their online presence,” and “block up their fax machine”.
GCHQ also likes to use “disruption” techniques in lieu of what it calls “traditional law enforcement” such as evidence-gathering, courts and prosecutions. In a document entitled Cyber Offensive Session: Pushing the Boundaries and Action Against Hacktivism, GCHQ discusses its targeting of “hacktivists” with, ironically, “denial of service” attacks, a tactic commonly associated with hackers.
The British surveillance agency also uses a team of social scientists, including psychologists, to develop techniques of “online HUMINT” (human intelligence) and “strategic influence disruption”. The document The Art of Deception: Training for a New Generation of Online Covert Operations is devoted to these tactics. Prepared by the agency’s HSOC (Human Science Operation Cell), the paper claims to draw on sociology, psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and biology, among other fields, to maximize GCHQ’s online deception skills.
The document then lays out what it calls the “Disruption Operational Playbook”. This includes “infiltration operation”, “ruse operation”, “false flag operation”, and “sting operation”. It vows a “full roll out” of the disruption programme “by early 2013” as “150+ staff [are] fully trained”.
Under the title Magic Techniques & Experiment, the document references “Legitimisation of violence”, “Constructing experience in mind of targets which should be accepted so they don’t realise”, and “Optimising deception channels”.
Such government plans to monitor and influence internet communications and disseminate false information online have long been a source of speculation. The GCHQ documents show for the first time that these controversial techniques have moved from the proposal stage to implementation.
All of the evidence highlights the implicit bargain that is offered to citizens: pose no challenge and you have nothing to worry about. Mind your own business, and support or at least tolerate what we do, and you’ll be fine. Put differently, you must refrain from provoking the authority that wields surveillance powers if you wish to be deemed free of wrongdoing.
This is a deal that invites passivity, obedience and conformity. The safest course, the way to ensure being “left alone”, is to remain quiet, unthreatening and compliant.
No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald is published on May 2013 by Hamish Hamilton