American News

How the Tech Giants Work for the Security State

Can the US system of surveillance by intermediaries rival China’s social credit system?
Google news, Apple news, tech giants, tech companies, Big Tech, Big government, US security state, US national security, American national security, Peter Isackson

© HQuality / Shutterstock

June 14, 2021 07:34 EDT

The United States proudly believes in its uniqueness as the one nation in this corrupt world that remains dedicated to the freedom of its citizens. That belief is part of the nation’s founding myth. Americans see their nation as representing an ideal, a model for all other nations to emulate. They continue to believe that their government is committed to their own unassailable freedom, even after the increasingly visible stranglehold over all of its institutions by the military-industrial complex, a process already well underway when President Dwight Eisenhower denounced it 60 years ago. 

The takeover has been confirmed by numerous events, including a series of costly and futile wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Despite the obvious lessons of recent history, Washington’s political class consistently demonstrates its inability to oppose policies that lead to more failed wars or to rein in an ever-expanding military budget. It would be more accurate to call the USA the UCA, the United Complex of America. Militarism in body and spirit defines its unity.

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As a corollary of their conviction that their system of government represents an ideal the rest of the world should emulate, Americans believe that all other nations, even their Western allies, have less freedom. The populations of these nations willingly accept being ruled over by invasive governments that exercise unjustified control over their citizens’ lives, limiting their right to the pursuit of happiness.

After all, every one of them boasts one form or another of the tyrannical practice known as “socialized medicine.” Most of them even have national identity cards, symbols of all-seeing, all-controlling administrations. Those two horrors — socialized medicine and identity cards — define cowardly peoples who have renounced their basic rights (including the right to arm oneself for rebellion), something Americans will always refuse to do.

In an article detailing the complex relations between tech giants and law enforcement, three New York Times reporters reveal how, in the home of the brave and the land of the free, the citizens deemed to be brave have ended up accepting a truly invasive system they naively believe makes them free. Without having to invent a visibly centralized system of control, their government has perfected its strategies for spying on, managing and when necessary, directly controlling the lives of its citizens.

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Thanks to the culture of the consumer society, the methods devised turned out to be simple to put in place. It begins with an immediately acceptable ideological principle that already applies to practically everything in the American way of life. The most powerful government in the world delegates an important part of the task of control to private enterprises. Just as American foreign wars, once prosecuted by a national, conscripted army, have veered toward the logic of mercenary armies, the US government’s surveillance — though clearly present in its vast, centralized intelligence community and security state — relies on private tech companies to provide the direct interface with its citizens. Distracted by the glitz, glamor and freebies offered by successful tech enterprises, the American people fail to recognize how they are being monitored and manipulated. 

The hyperreal illusion is facilitated by Americans’ belief that because private companies are focused on profit, they, as the customers who enable the firms’ profitability, are in good hands. Profit, they have been taught, is the secret weapon that preserves apolitical virtue. Americans feel they can entrust every aspect of their life to companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon, who have no political agenda other than expanding the boundaries of citizens’ freedom by offering them access to platforms that, in turn, offer them more and more free or discounted goods and services.

Focusing on the example of Apple, the Times article highlights the kind of ambiguity that exists when politically motivated persons of authority use that authority to subpoena not people, but the data collected by the admittedly greedy but supposedly politically neutral tech companies. Users have nothing to fear because the companies all have policies designed to protect the confidentiality of their customers’ data. It is written into their contracts.

But in a world where the population has been told terrorism is always lurking in the shadows, law enforcement and national security sometimes need to access that data. They use the law to accomplish their goal. The companies, to respect their contract with users, have the right to refuse. “But more frequently than not,” the article tells us, “the companies comply with law enforcement demands. And that underlines an awkward truth: As their products become more central to people’s lives, the world’s largest tech companies have become surveillance intermediaries and crucial partners to authorities, with the power to arbitrate which requests to honor and which to reject.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Surveillance intermediaries:

Supposedly uninvolved, neutral bystanders who have been given the task of hoarding the data that can be used, when needed, to restore order or achieve any other ends deemed essential to the security of those in power.

Contextual Note

These practices are now being exposed in the courts. According to the understanding Americans have of a democratic system based on the subtle play of “checks and balances,” freedom and justice, even when challenged, will always prevail. Or will they? It is one thing to know how the system was designed. Another is to understand how it works.

The Times reporters reveal that “more frequently than not, the companies comply with law enforcement demands.” The number of those requests “has soared in recent years to thousands a week.” Analyzing the statistics, they note that over a six-month period in 2020, for example, Apple challenged 238 demands. That corresponds to 4% of the total. Blind compliance with the government thus occurs 96% of the time. That translates as the same figure for non-compliance with the terms of their own contract with their customers.

President Joe Biden’s attorney general, Merrick B. Garland, justifies this arrangement, not because it is founded in law but because it is the result of “a set of policies that have existed for decades.” Blame it on tradition. Or rather don’t blame it at all. That is the ransom people pay to their need for security. The article describes the use of “gag orders that authorities placed on the subpoenas.” Apple and Microsoft agreed, under constraint, not to inform those whose information was targeted. “In Apple’s case, a yearlong gag order was renewed three separate times.”

Historical Note

In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed to the world that the US spies on its own citizens. The shock of 9/11 put in place a state of permanent paranoia that allowed Americans to accept any measure proposed to protect them from terrorists. All the data that exists about the citizens themselves, most of it now generated and stored by private companies, may play a role in controlling their behavior. It helps the government detect sedition and terrorism. For the companies, it is merely the key to generating profits by understanding and influencing the behavior of consumers.

In recent years, the media have reported extensively on the social credit system China is currently putting in place. It appears to use invasive technology to produce the equivalent of George Orwell’s Big Brother in “1984.” For that reason, it is anathema to freedom-loving Americans. What the Times article reveals is that, contrary to China, whose government exclusively defines and operates the system, Americans get two surveillance operators for the price of one.

If an intrusive government is the enemy of the people’s freedom, the Chinese at least have the advantage of knowing who the enemy is. In the US, where the government has set up a central system of what we might call “control of acceptable values” (i.e., values that do not lead toward terrorism), there is a second set of operators: the platforms that organize all the data that may prove useful to the needs of the central surveillance system. The people trust the companies, who are only interested in the cash advantages produced by citizens’ data. But the government is interested in everything else, from basic security to partisan political exploitation.

Americans traditionally fear “big government,” a Godzilla-like monster that may be surveilling them. That fear is so deeply instilled, they will never notice, let alone fear surveillance intermediaries.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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