A Man Who Resisted the Security State

"The tech visionaries who predicted that the internet would be revolutionary were correct, but not in the way that they expected."
Thumbnail image for LivesOfOthers.jpg

I'm not referring to Edward Snowden (nor to the man* above) but instead to someone who resisted in a different, very quiet way, more than a decade ago. The account below comes from a person I have known for a long time, and it describes someone I also know. It's worth reading both for the observations in the first half and for the personal story in the second. This reader writes:

I've been thinking about the recent leak investigations.  I'm usually very sympathetic to my  dad's [ca. age 80] very liberal take on these sorts of things.  But I've been having a hard time getting too excited about it. To me, this is the inevitable result of the way that technology has developed

Sadly, the tech visionaries who predicted that the internet would be revolutionary were correct, but not in the way that they expected.  We all want to be able to seamlessly move our work and online lives from desktop to laptop to smartphone to ipads.  Tech companies have given us this, and in the process have created vast warehouses of our digital lives that are assumed to have great value and you can bet that there is a constant effort at these companies to figure out how to monetize this digital storehouse.  So the NSA is simply getting a copy of the information that already is being saved to be mined for possible profit.

The companies, like Obama, assure us that they strip out identifying information.  The companies, like Obama, are asking us to trust them.  To me, the only way to change this threat to our individual liberties would be to make it illegal for any collection of our digital footprints by anyone.  And I don't see this happening.

This brings to mind a story about XX [our mutual acquaintance] not long after 9/11.  He was head of the technical team at YY [one of the former Baby Bell companies] and he was getting pressured to set up digital taps based on secret government warrants shown to the company's executives by government representatives where the company could only look at the secret warrant, but not make a copy or take any notes.  XX was bothered by the fact that once YY set up these digital taps, they were never turned off.  He also was concerned that there was no way even to validate whether these requests even came from legitimate government representatives.   And yet he wanted to keep his job. 

So he told his bosses that he would be more than happy to have his team of engineers comply, but just needed to have the exact procedures written down so that they could keep accurate records because, "at YY, we are trained to document everything we do in writing very carefully to protect ourselves and the company." 

This didn't make the government or the YY executives happy, so they flew him out to headquarters in [city ZZ] and basically tried to strong arm him into just doing it without asking any questions.   He stuck to his "I am very happy to do this, but  just want to protect my team and the company and make sure that we set up the same procedures here that we have for everything else we do" mantra.  When he went back home he sent an email to company lawyers who had called him in laying out what his understanding of what they wanted him to do and how he should document the work.

And that's the last he heard and YY was one of the only phone companies that didn't comply with secret government digital tapping requests that came to light during the Bush presidency.  Sadly, it seems that there are very few people like XX out there, so there you go...

If we finally are beginning the security-state "debate" that is many years overdue, one crucial element to examine is the interaction among technological possibilities, institutional imperatives, and the pressure on individuals to say Yes or No. It is too much to expect everyone, or even most people, to do what this telecom-company employee did. Yet his quiet example should be noted.

* The picture is of course from the wonderful German movie The Lives of Others. If you have seen it, you'll immediately understand why this image comes to mind. If you haven't seen it, please check it out soon.

UPDATE A reader writes in response to this message: 
..when everything is so secret, how can one be sure that one is following orders (even a Court order -- ever heard of forgeries?)  from legitimate authority?
   ("He also was concerned that there was no way even to validate whether these requests even came from legitimate government representatives. " -- from your latest post a few minutes ago)

I think that the danger of PRISM etc Is misuse of the data bases by people who are clearly operating _outside the law_... Snowden (for example and by his own claim) could have been using his data resources for insider trading...just go look into the email of the honchos at Morgan Stnley. They've made an information monoculture -- and you know how risky monocultures in agriculture.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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