Next time you gossip or brag about cheating on your partner, check under the table. Group’s stunt highlights extent of the real NSA as the debate continues
Next time you’re at a bar in the East Village, say, congratulating yourself on having tricked your roommate, bitching about your friend’s accent or sharing your partner’s sex secrets, check under the table for listening devices. Wags claiming to work for the NSA as one of “many third-party contractors, albeit pro-bono and unofficial” are collecting your conversations.
A group calling themselves We Are Always Listening says it has placed recording devices across New York and – just like their real NSA counterparts – they have plans to start snooping on people in Germany too.
The stunt aims to highlight the extent of the NSA’s domestic surveillance program as the debate over whether or not to renew the Patriot Act rages on. In a conversation with the Guardian the “agents” said they have been careful not to release “anybody’s first and last names”, although there were two names in one of the tracks on the site Friday afternoon.
The Chinese government is currently implementing a nationwide electronic system, called the Social Credit System, attributing toeach of its 1,3 billion citizens a score for his or her behavior. The system will be based on various criteria, ranging from financial credibility and criminal record to social media behavior. From 2020 onwards each adult citizen should, besides his identity card, have such a credit code.
Corporations and governments have co-opted the idea of the ‘social’ for their own ends. Is there anything we can do about it?
Imagine walking into a coffee shop, ordering a cappuccino, and then, to your surprise, being informed that it has already been paid for. Where did this unexpected gift come from? It transpires that it was left by the previous customer. The only snag, if indeed it is a snag, is that you now have to do the same for the next customer who walks in.
This is known as a “pay-it-forward” pricing scheme. It is something that has been practised by a number of small businesses in California, such as the Karma Kitchen in Berkeley and, in some cases, customers have introduced it spontaneously. On the face of it, it would seem to defy the logic of free-market economics. Markets, surely, are places where we are allowed, even expected, to behave selfishly. With its hippy idealism, pay-it-forward would appear to go against the core tenets of economic calculation.
But there is more to it than this. Researchers from the decision science research group at the University of California, Berkeley have looked closely at pay-it-forward pricing and discovered something with profound implications for how markets and businesses work. It transpires that people will generally pay more under the pay-it-forward model than under a conventional pricing system. As the study’s lead author, Minah Jung, puts it: “People don’t want to look cheap. They want to be fair, but they also want to fit in with the social norms.” Contrary to what economists have long assumed, altruism can often exert a far stronger influence over our decision-making than calculation.
Such findings are typical of the field of behavioural economics, which emerged in the late 1970s. Like regular economists, behavioural economists assume that individuals are usually motivated to maximise their own benefit – but not always. In certain circumstances, they are social and moral animals, even when this appears to undermine their economic interests. They follow the herd and act according to certain rules of thumb. They have some principles that they will not sacrifice for money at all.
It seems that this undermines the cynical, individualist theory of human psychology, which lies at the heart of orthodox economics. Could it be that we are decent, social creatures after all? A great deal of neuroscientific research into the roots of sympathy and reciprocity supports this. Optimists might view this as the basis for a new political hope, of a society in which sharing and gift-giving offer a serious challenge to the power of monetary accumulation and privatisation.
But there is also a more disturbing possibility: that the critique of individualism and monetary calculation is now being incorporated into the armoury of utilitarian policy and management. One of the key insights of behavioural economics is that, if one wants to control other human beings, it is often far more effective to appeal to their sense of morality and social identity than to their self-interest.
This is symptomatic of a more general shift in policy and business practices today. Across various fields of expertise, from healthcare to marketing, from military training to finance, there is rising hope that strategic goals can be achieved through harnessing the power of the “social”. But what exactly does this mean? As the era of social democracy recedes further into the past, the meaning of the term is undergoing a profound transformation. Where once the term implied something concerning society or the common good, increasingly it refers to a technique of psychological intervention on the individual. Informal social connections and friendships are being rendered more visible and measurable. In the process, they are being turned into possible instruments of power.
Glenn Greenwald, a journalist, constitutional lawyer, commentator, and author of three New York Times best-selling books on politics and law, has been working with NBC News in publishing a series of articles on how covert government agents infiltrate the Internet to “manipulate, deceive, and destroy reputations.”
In this shocking piece, Greenwald publishes a copy of a spy training manual used entitled: “The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations.” Greenwald writes that agencies like the NSA are “attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the internet itself.” Greenwald writes:
Among the core self-identified purposes of JTRIG are two tactics: (1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and (2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable. To see how extremist these programs are, just consider the tactics they boast of using to achieve those ends: “false flag operations” (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting “negative information” on various forums.
While this kind of counter-intelligence activity may not sound surprising given the objectives of spy agencies going after terrorists, what disturbs Greenwald (and many others) is that the discussion regarding these techniques have been greatly expanded to include the general public:
Critically, the “targets” for this deceit and reputation-destruction extend far beyond the customary roster of normal spycraft: hostile nations and their leaders, military agencies, and intelligence services. In fact, the discussion of many of these techniques occurs in the context of using them in lieu of “traditional law enforcement” against people suspected (but not charged or convicted) of ordinary crimes or, more broadly still, “hacktivism”, meaning those who use online protest activity for political ends.
The title page of one of these documents reflects the agency’s own awareness that it is “pushing the boundaries” by using “cyber offensive” techniques against people who have nothing to do with terrorism or national security threats, and indeed, centrally involves law enforcement agents who investigate ordinary crimes.
No matter your views on Anonymous, “hacktivists” or garden-variety criminals, it is not difficult to see how dangerous it is to have secret government agencies being able to target any individuals they want – who have never been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crimes – with these sorts of online, deception-based tactics of reputation destruction and disruption.
And while these leaked documents concern the British spy agency, Greenwald is quick to point out that the Obama administration has actually been open and forward about using such techniques in the U.S.:
Government plans to monitor and influence internet communications, and covertly infiltrate online communities in order to sow dissension and disseminate false information, have long been the source of speculation. Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, a close Obama adviser and the White House’s former head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote a controversial paper in 2008 proposing that the US government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-”independent” advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites, as well as other activist groups.
Sunstein also proposed sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups” which spread what he views as false and damaging “conspiracy theories” about the government. Ironically, the very same Sunstein was recently named by Obama to serve as a member of the NSA review panel created by the White House, one that – while disputing key NSA claims – proceeded to propose many cosmetic reforms to the agency’s powers (most of which were ignored by the President who appointed them).
Last spring, designer Adam Harvey hosted a session on hair and makeup techniques for attendees of the 2015 FutureEverything Festival in Manchester, England. Rather than sharing innovative ways to bring out the audience’s eyes, Harvey’s CV Dazzle Anon introduced a series of styling methods designed with almost the exact opposite aim of traditional beauty tricks: to turn your face into an anti-face—one that cameras, particularly those of the surveillance variety, will not only fail to love, but fail to recognize.