This NYT essay by Peter Ludlow—a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University and a specialist on ethics and hacktivism—is great stuff that goes a step beyond the NSA revelations and concentrates on private security companies and their role in not only surveillance but outright deception of the public, with a short detour into Heidegger and Plato's allegory of the cave.
A few tidbits:
The realm of secrecy and deception among shadowy yet powerful forces may sound like the province of investigative reporters, thriller novelists and Hollywood moviemakers — and it is — but it is also a matter for philosophers. More accurately, understanding deception and and how it can be exposed has been a principle project of philosophy for the last 2500 years. And it is a place where the work of journalists, philosophers and other truth-seekers can meet.
An important insight into the world these companies came from a 2010 hack by a group best known as LulzSec (at the time the group was called Internet Feds), which targeted the private intelligence firm HBGary Federal. That hack yielded 75,000 e-mails. It revealed, for example, that Bank of America approached the Department of Justice over concerns about information that WikiLeaks had about it. The Department of Justice in turn referred Bank of America to the lobbying firm Hunton and Willliams, which in turn connected the bank with a group of information security firms collectively known as Team Themis.
So a query to the Department of Justice eventually led Bank of America to Team Themis—check out what those guys (and guys like them) do for a living:
Team Themis (a group that included HBGary and the private intelligence and security firms Palantir Technologies, Berico Technologies and Endgame Systems) was effectively brought in to find a way to undermine the credibility of WikiLeaks and the journalist Glenn Greenwald (who recently broke the story of Edward Snowden’s leak of the N.S.A.’s Prism program), because of Greenwald’s support for WikiLeaks. Specifically, the plan called for actions to “sabotage or discredit the opposing organization” including a plan to submit fake documents and then call out the error. As for Greenwald, it was argued that he would cave “if pushed” because he would “choose professional preservation over cause.” That evidently wasn’t the case.
The hack also revealed evidence that Team Themis was developing a “persona management” system — a program, developed at the specific request of the United States Air Force, that allowed one user to control multiple online identities (“sock puppets”) for commenting in social media spaces, thus giving the appearance of grass roots support. The contract was eventually awarded to another private intelligence firm.
One intriguing e-mail revealed that the Coca-Cola company was asking Stratfor for intelligence on PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) with Stratfor vice president for Intelligence claiming that “The F.B.I. has a classified investigation on PETA operatives. I’ll see what I can uncover.” From this one could get the impression that the F.B.I. was in effect working as a private detective Stratfor and its corporate clients.
Team Themis also developed a proposal for the Chamber of Commerce to undermine the credibility of one of its critics, a group called Chamber Watch. The proposal called for first creating a “false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial information,” giving it to a progressive group opposing the Chamber, and then subsequently exposing the document as a fake to “prove that U.S. Chamber Watch cannot be trusted with information and/or tell the truth...”
In addition, the group proposed creating a “fake insider persona” to infiltrate Chamber Watch. They would “create two fake insider personas, using one as leverage to discredit the other while confirming the legitimacy of the second.”
The high-school civics class version of American democracy, at least the version I learned, said that individuals are largely free to do what they do and believe what they believe in private (within the bounds of law), while representative government has a duty to be accountable and transparent.
All this NSA and surveillance-state debate in the past week has shown that our understanding of that order has flipped. Now government has the privilege of operating in opacity and secrecy, while our day-to-day must be transparent and scrutinized (without any meaningful input from us about that arrangement).
Meanwhile, the polls on what Americans think of the NSA surveillance program are all over the place. Pew says 56% approve of the surveillance, CBS says 58% disapprove of the surveillance, and Gallup says that 53% disapprove but that 10% have no opinion at all. (This post has some interesting arguments about why the numbers are contradictory, including analysis of the way the polls were worded.)
But the one thing we know—and what the NYT essay shows—is that we don't really know much.