The intelligence-industrial complex and the persistence of mass surveillance

Monday, February 3, 2014 at 9:26 am by
(Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed)

(Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed)

Revelations about the US government’s mass surveillance efforts truly piled up during this past week. According to documents released by NBC and journalist Glenn Greenwald, the British government showed its US counterparts a program that enables the extraction of user data through real-time monitoring of social media sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

Then, the New York Times and ProPublica reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) and its British partner Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) gather personal data through smartphone applications. The agencies can access information about a user’s location, age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and education. Finally, Edward Snowden said in an interview on German television that the NSA participates in industrial sabotage, gathering information from foreign companies that could be advantageous to US interests beyond national security.

This outpouring of discoveries about the the scope of the American surveillance state and its partnerships abroad comes on the heels of an independent oversight board’s strong rejection of the NSA’s data collection program. On January 23, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) concluded that the bulk data collection program is illegal and should end. PCLOB further highlighted that the program has not identified terrorist threats to the United States or played a role in terror investigations.
Despite this recommendation, and in the face of growing public discontent with mass surveillance programs that blatantly disregard the right to privacy and the rule of law, President Obama and congressional leaders like Senator Dianne Feinstein continue to support intrusions into our personal lives and communications. So why stick by a program that is illegal, ineffective, and unpopular?

To understand why politicians continue to support the NSA’s bulk data collection and other similar programs, we need to look at the larger story of how the US builds–and maintains–such a complicated and far-reaching surveillance machine. Michael Hirsh of the National Journal argues that for the past twenty years, the private tech industry has shaped national security policy and then profited from building the infrastructure necessary to conduct mass surveillance. Likewise, intelligence agencies have dictated how private companies develop technology and then utilized that technology to conduct surveillance. Referencing what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex” in 1961, Hirsh calls this system of influence and profit between for-profit tech companies and intelligence agencies the “intelligence-industrial complex.”

Through the intelligence-industrial complex, the tech industry gains a powerful customer and dispels any suspicions that might arise if they denied help to the government. Intelligence agencies like the NSA, which came under fire for failing to stop the attacks of 9/11, gain sophisticated  technological infrastructure and ever more access to information, whether that’s a backdoor into encryption or user data from Google, Facebook, and Yahoo. Thus, mass surveillance persists because of the deeply entrenched web of pressure and profits that ultimately fulfills the needs of both the tech industry and intelligence agencies. Hirsh explains that the two have become virtually inseparable:

Today, [former NSA Directory Michael] Hayden says, the [NSA] itself is all but indistinguishable from the private sector it has exploited. Its best technology is designed by the private sector—“There isn’t a phone or computer at Fort Meade that the government owns,” he says —and its surveillance systems are virtually interwoven with their products … One by one, Hayden says, the NSA contracted with companies to “make them part of our team,” as he puts it.

In the end, tech companies profit financially and the NSA saves face by building a surveillance system that appears to cover all the bases of counter-terrorism. At this point it should be apparent what’s been lost in the intelligence-industrial complex: national security programs informed by evidence and a commitment to constitutional rights rather than corporate interests and a private sector providing technological innovations free from government surveillance.

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