The Philosopher of Surveillance
August 11, 2015 11:56 AM   Subscribe

When intelligence officials justify surveillance, they tend to use the stilted language of national security, and we typically hear only from senior officials who stick to their platitudes. It is rare for mid-level experts — the ones conducting the actual surveillance — to frankly explain what they do and why. And in this case, the candid confessions come from the NSA’s own surveillance philosopher. The columns answer a sociological curiosity: How does working at an intelligence agency turn a privacy hawk into a prophet of eavesdropping?
What Happens When a Failed Writer Becomes a Loyal Spy? Peter Maass for The Intercept
posted by p3on (26 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
It might seem odd that a self-professed libertarian would wish an Orwellian dystopia on himself

posted by shmegegge at 12:22 PM on August 11, 2015 [15 favorites]

So I guess Peter Maass != Peter Maas? This has always confused me.
posted by hwestiii at 12:39 PM on August 11, 2015

His story actually struck me as being really sad. He was an aspiring writer who was desperately looking for some way to pay the bills. He probably had a few dozen grand in student loans. He spoke Korean and was in the military, so he chose spying over working at McDonalds.

I don't think it's surprising that he develops some kind of self-justifying philosophy. Actually, all of us do the same thing. At this point in history, we are all compromised by our association with the American State and neoliberalism. Even if you're some kind of radical BLM/OWS anti-capitalist street activist, you still walk in slave-made sneakers over lands that were stolen from indigenous peoples.

There's no going back and there's no future worth fighting for, so you might as well be earning a decent paycheck in the meantime. That's really where Socrates -- and the rest of us -- are at right now.

Anyway, how is your Roth IRA doing?
posted by Avenger at 12:41 PM on August 11, 2015 [16 favorites]

OMG Avenger the Socrates is coming from inside the Metafilter.
posted by resurrexit at 1:10 PM on August 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Well, failed creatives have done worse things.
posted by Naberius at 1:11 PM on August 11, 2015 [22 favorites]

Frankly I sort of wish he had revealed the guy's name. This guy is pumping out advocacy for a total surveillance state, not to mention participating directly in it. It's sort of like a gay politician who is putting out homophobic rhetoric -- s/he deserves to be outed.
posted by zipadee at 1:12 PM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Frankly I sort of wish he had revealed the guy's name. This guy is pumping out advocacy for a total surveillance state...

Well, he's advocating on the NSA's internal classified network. Is he really changing any minds?

not to mention participating directly in it.

Per the article, the Intercept has a higher bar for outing people just because they work for the government.
posted by Etrigan at 1:16 PM on August 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Would-be writer who turns to spying? Harriet M. Welsch, is that you?
posted by clawsoon at 1:24 PM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Well, he's advocating on the NSA's internal classified network. Is he really changing any minds?

He was working to soothe the consciences of those carrying out the surveillance. Someone who can justify their actions to themself is someone who isn't snitching on naughty things like mass warrantless surveillance.
posted by indubitable at 1:26 PM on August 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

Frankly I sort of wish he had revealed the guy's name. This guy is pumping out advocacy for a total surveillance state, not to mention participating directly in it. It's sort of like a gay politician who is putting out homophobic rhetoric -- s/he deserves to be outed.

I mean...they basically did. I'm not going to post his name here, but it was very simple to find him even without looking at the comments, where I assume he's been outed multiple times, as tends to happen any time you see a story like this. You've got the name of a story he wrote, descriptions of multiple blog posts he wrote, a significant amount of his personal history. His online presence isn't that huge, but he's not non-existent.
posted by protocoach at 1:31 PM on August 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

"But if people knew everything about me, they’d see they had nothing to fear."
I know enough about his beliefs and justifications for them to be afraid of him already.
posted by clawsoon at 1:43 PM on August 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

But if people knew everything about me, they’d see they had nothing to fear

Because once the surveillance state knows everything about you, there's no way that they could make a mistake about you and your intentions and there's no possible way that the apparatus of surveillance and security could be misused in the future as a tool of oppression. History teaches us that this has never happened and will never happen.

If you're innocent you have nothing to fear.
posted by dazed_one at 2:01 PM on August 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

The new version is "if you live like you're nobody, and say nothing or do nothing of consequence, and make a difference to no one, you have nothing to fear. Fortunately this is the world you've been given. Do not make it your own."
posted by aydeejones at 2:18 PM on August 11, 2015 [9 favorites]

It might seem odd that a self-professed libertarian would wish an Orwellian dystopia on himself

Yeah, I mean why bother clinging to the "libertarian" label at this point? You'd think that by now the cognitive dissonance would be too much to bear and something would have to give. But, nope. Never underestimate the capacity for self-delusion and justification.
posted by mhum at 2:26 PM on August 11, 2015

aydeejones, not to mention, "if you avoid being a convenient target for political scapegoating, such as being the wrong ethnicity, race, nationality, religion, or profession."
posted by rustcrumb at 2:29 PM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you believe that the government is intrinsically benevolent, then yes, it stands to reason that the best way to improve the intrinsically benevolent government is to bring it closer to both omniscience and omnipotence so it will make fewer mistakes. And if you work for the government, and believe yourself to be intrinsically benevolent, then it's an easier leap to assume that the government is just like you (though it may still require you to avoid paying any attention to the GOP, like, ever). So sure, as long as Socrates does not examine his underlying assumptions to closely, he'll be just fine rationalizing it this way.

If, on the other hand, you believe that government is intrinsically flawed, short-sighted, and basically self-serving, because you believe that people are all those things (even if you also believe that people are mostly benevolent and well-meaning), well, the idea of a government like that being brought closer to omniscience and omnipotence is...not especially reassuring.

In other words, more NSA spying to reduce government mistakes only makes sense if you assume the government only ever does evil by mistake. And if you assume that, then you've already drunk the kool-aid so your specific rationalization is pretty irrelevant.
posted by mstokes650 at 2:51 PM on August 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

There is an incredible amount to read into here for such a short piece. The writerly connection seems almost fictionally serendipitous: it's too literal an example of the tension between merciless voyeurism vs. human connection in fiction, or of any one of those countless quips, which I cannot now remember, from writers about gobbling up the stories of those around them and curating the most sensitive parts for publication, or about flaying open personal lives for the sake of a transcendent sympathy.

I'm surprised that the article doesn't then as explicitly draw out the religious element of surveillance, although Socrates himself clearly recognizes them. Aside from being "an evangelical Christian for seven years:"
His inaugural column even suggested that the NSA’s slogan could be “building informed decision makers — so that targets do not suffer our nation’s wrath unless they really deserve it — by exercising deity-like monitoring of the target.”
This is not even paving the road to hell -- this is the flip side of the urge to throw yourself naked before judgement in the hope that you will be seen and understood in the sum of your humanity, and through understanding earn mercy. It's so fundamentally human, too; when Socrates' polygraph twitches, his fear is manifested not by the urge to flee but by the urge to connect. He's feeling a gap between himself and a judgmental authority which could in other cases be closed by shared proclivities, rituals, childhoods, or even confession. He wants to explain himself as much as any autobiographer.

Of course, isn't the urge to explain also the urge to control? Writing is literally about telling the exact story you want to tell (or trying to). Part of what of what's frustrating in a workshop is that the neophyte author is faced with how little control they have over their work, and how little of the story in their head made it across to their readers. But they're still the author of the story, and I guess what makes this article so fascinating for me is how that authorial background is expressed in apologias for state surveillance, apologias which seem to grant state surveillance a very literary -- almost religious -- sense of sympathy and humanity. (Or do they? So much of this is second hand: I would love to read these columns in full.)

Yet in the glimpses we've had of this modern surveillance apparatus we see an industrialized, literally inhuman authorship: a mindless intelligence recording and sorting our collective technological detritus -- GPS data, ISP logs, financial transactions, etc. -- to create diaries which do not at all resemble the stories we'd tell each other, and which, for all their permanence, may never be read by human eyes. And the human eyes which do read them are, for the sake of national security (or for other, less self-announcing agendas), searching for the least charitable interpretation possible.

Were I in school I'd maybe try to make something of the dynamic there between author and reader there: the authors being everyone under passive surveillance, who moment-to-moment write their autobiographies; the readers being the handful of people who select one autobiography out of unread thousands and, invisible to the author, determine it's ultimate meaning.

This is fascinating. I kind of want to read everything Socrates has written, but I feel weird searching for it.

Thanks for posting.
posted by postcommunism at 2:52 PM on August 11, 2015 [11 favorites]

Ironically, he discusses Why Literature is Bad for You on his blog, which is a book all about the ways in which literature can corrupt us and make us bad people. A summary of the book says that the final four ways are:
Distorting the language, writing poorly, gossipping and invading the privacy of others, and advocating or tolerating censorship.
posted by clawsoon at 3:11 PM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

So much of this is second hand: I would love to read these columns in full.

I don't know if you saw them or not, but there's a list of the columns at the bottom of the article that link to the leaked PDFs.
posted by indubitable at 3:11 PM on August 11, 2015

Ah, didn't realize what those were. Thanks!
posted by postcommunism at 3:13 PM on August 11, 2015

Typically libertarians in the process of growing out of it (ideally this process happens in high school) come to realize that the aggregation of everyone's "freely" made economic choices in a context of unequal distribution of resources, wherein the chief feature that determines the future allocation of resources is the present allocation of resources (wherein it takes money to make money and wherein it's not what you know, but who you know) results in a system wherein resources pool in a very few hands due solely to the tendency of money to seek money. Under these conditions, one's relative level of freedom is determined solely by how close one can get to the people with the stuff — in short, neofeudalism.

Most of the people who make this realization tend to become something other than libertarians. Some of them, though, become fixated on the idea that the market is natural and just, and therefore argue that market systems' tendency toward neofeudalistic social relations is not an artifact of the market but instead the universe itself. Unable to shake the axiom that the market is inherently just, they then reason that feudalism is therefore also inherently just, and that attempts to resist feudalistic social relations are therefore not just wrong but insane. These guys end up becoming Dark Enlightenment-style monarchists.

The SIGINT Socrates seems to have followed the security state equivalent of this pattern of reasoning, wherein instead of money being concentrated and the people holding it worshipped, the capacity to surveille becomes concentrated, and the people holding that capacity worshipped.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 3:54 PM on August 11, 2015 [8 favorites]

I see his point. Some evil that the government does could be avoided through better understanding of the targets of surveillance. He is probably right about that. Problem is, it is still evil to torture people we have a 100% incontrovertible certainty are directly involved in terrorism. It is still evil to kill those people with drones rather than after due process of law. (Which is only slightly less evil, to my mind)

I don't really have a problem with extraordinary rendition in the abstract, applied to people who are certain to have committed or are committing what amount to acts of war against us. I have a problem with where they take those people and the lack of legal protections they receive.

So yeah, to the extent that the surveillance state keeps that from happening to total innocents (and I'm not at all convinced that it does), it could be having a positive impact. That doesn't really make it OK, though.
posted by wierdo at 5:19 PM on August 11, 2015

wierdo: is it ever permissible to kill a terrorist with a drone?
posted by persona au gratin at 5:44 PM on August 11, 2015

The saddest part about the polygraph story, his conversion story as it were, is that polygraphs don't actually work as advertised, as we just discussed here recently. That needle twitch didn't mean much, and what it inspired was essentially pointless and pitiful.

It's like if Paul had his road-to-Damascus moment and went on to his missions, only to have his friends admit years later that they just, uh, spiked his food with 'shrooms right before and he was high as a kite when he though Jesus was talking to him.

The desire to give yourself over to someone or something else is a powerful one, and not limited to the NSA. It's why people join cults. I feel bad for this guy, he got swallowed up. He'd have done better to go flip burgers if he wanted to keep his soul intact though.
posted by emjaybee at 6:25 PM on August 11, 2015

persona au gratin: Of course it is. When they are directly and immediately or imminently in the act of killing third parties. I'm fine with the defense of others doctrine. Killing someone who is an immediate threat is fine by my moral standards. It is not OK to me to kill people who are not an immediate threat, especially those who are already in custody. I suppose, as a corner case, if someone were tried, convicted, sentenced to death and later escaped, I wouldn't have any more of a problem with them being shot by a drone than pumped full of drugs. As we've seen, drone strikes are rarely if ever that clean, however. Collateral damage is common, at best.

If they want to do police work with drones, they should be made to apprehend, not kill.
posted by wierdo at 7:21 PM on August 11, 2015

It would be ironic if Socrates isn't allowed to view the story because of the combination of internal NSA restrictions on only viewing what you're allowed to view and linking to classified information.
posted by clawsoon at 7:52 AM on August 12, 2015

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