Saturday, December 24, 2005

The geography of "wiretapping" labor

What do you know, less than twenty-four hours after I said I wouldn't be posting, a revelation in the New York Times this morning that I'd like to dissect a bit. The article, "Spy Agency Mined Vast Data Trove, Officials Report" [] discusses new background information about the Bush administration's executive-ordered practice of surveillance over international communications without customary court approval:

The National Security Agency has traced and analyzed large volumes of telephone and Internet communications flowing into and out of the United States as part of the eavesdropping program that President Bush approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hunt for evidence of terrorist activity, according to current and former government officials.

The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system's main arteries, they said.

So right from the start, our old telegraph-era spatial and technological metaphor of "wiretapping" is a bit inadequate to analyze what's going on. The "wiretap" idea assumes a geography of sender, receiver, and intermediary "wire" which can be "tapped" either at the sender's end, at the receiver's end, or somewhere in between -- wherever is technologically convenient and/or legally allowable. The wires, sticking with this historical analogy, might be corporate-owned physical capital, but are erected on government-granted right-of-way. But the technological and political geography of "analyz[ing] large volumes of telephone and Internet communications flowing into and out of the United States" at the "main arteries" of the US telecommunication system is quite different.

The way the Bush administration has described (and justified) its actions so far fits into the old "wire tapping" metaphor: "President Bush and his senior aides have stressed that his executive order allowing eavesdropping without warrants was limited to the monitoring of international phone and e-mail communications involving people with known links to Al Qaeda." But the actual labor of identifying which virtual "wires" to "tap" is far more thorny and complicated: "What has not been publicly acknowledged is that N.S.A. technicians, besides actually eavesdropping on specific conversations, have combed through large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of patterns that might point to terrorism suspects. Some officials describe the program as a large data-mining operation."

From "wire tapping" to "data mining" the scale and meaning of surveillance changes significantly. The NYT article reminds us that "The use of similar data-mining operations by the Bush administration in other contexts has raised strong objections, most notably in connection with the Total Information Awareness system, developed by the Pentagon for tracking terror suspects, and the Department of Homeland Security's Capps program for screening airline passengers. Both programs were ultimately scrapped after public outcries over possible threats to privacy and civil liberties."

The cooperation of corporate owners, managers, and workers in "data mining" activity is much more crucial as well, according to anonymous sources in the article: "A former technology manager at a major telecommunications company said that since the Sept. 11 attacks, the leading companies in the industry have been storing information on calling patterns and giving it to the federal government to aid in tracking possible terrorists. [...] Several officials said that after President Bush's order authorizing the N.S.A. program, senior government officials arranged with officials of some of the nation's largest telecommunications companies to gain access to switches that act as gateways at the borders between the United States' communications networks and international networks. The identities of the corporations involved could not be determined."

Further, when mining this data at the level of the "telecom switch," even within one particular corporation's control at a time, it is not always apparent whether the geography of the telephone call or Internet transaction is intended to involve the US, or whether it simply reaches US-based equipment as a consequence of decisions made about the topological efficiency and market cost of global corporate communication networks: "The switches are some of the main arteries for moving voice and some Internet traffic into and out of the United States, and, with the globalization of the telecommunications industry in recent years, many international-to-international calls are also routed through such American switches."

Now, I'm not pointing out these moments of the article in order to make a claim about whether or not our government should or should not engage in such data mining. But I find it disturbing that the President refuses to actually engage in this debate openly, using a century-old "wire tapping" metaphor for a new-economy "data mining" activity. With the well-documented unwillingness of the Bush administration to make its decision-making processes transparent and open to public debate -- from its corporate-friendly energy policy, to its use of taxpayer-paid and placed opinion columns and video news releases in support of its policies, to its decision to link Iraq to 9/11 in a metaphorical "War on Terror" -- I don't think it is unreasonable to ask for explanation and justification of a major shift in surveillance policy.

The final point to consider comes out at the end of the NYT article, when it is revealed that not only might the Bush administration be exceeding its legal authority in its post-9/11 surveillance practices, but that it has actually used its coercive power to create a corporate and technological environment more amenable to such practices: "One outside expert on communications privacy who previously worked at the N.S.A. said that to exploit its technological capabilities, the American government had in the last few years been quietly encouraging the telecommunications industry to increase the amount of international traffic that is routed through American-based switches." In other words, actions taken unilaterally by the US government in pursuit of its own definition of a "War on Terror" are helping to change the geography of information flow, information surveillance, and information profit on a global scale. From an administration -- and a party -- which claims to value the working of the "free market" and claims to eschew regulation of that market, such coercion over the "space of flows" of global communication for particular national security ends is a contradictory moment that might reveal a rift between the "fiscal," the "defense," and the "libertarian" pillars of the current US conservative/Republican movement.

1 comment:

Melanie said...

From this commentary, I had to seriously consider the amount and intensity of labor that went into programming the IV that went into that kind of telecom vein. Capturing data is hard enough without capturing the attributes of a stream. This commentary calls to mind the resistance of early computer programmers who, in the late 1960s and 1970s, organized and protested against the exploitation of their labor for use in the Vietnam War. The archives of many computer pioneers contains folders upon folders of information about such groups as "Computer People for Peace"...and I must wonder if any anti-war young programmers are realizing that their labor is being co-opted in this way?