|"Pardon Snowden": You are entreated to "follow the campaign." Have You? Can you? Have you thought about. . . .|
There is a meta-irony in this in that, given the tools at the disposal of the National Security Agency, the agency that feels thwarted by Mr. Snowden concerning multiple issues about which they are at loggerheads, social media, may not be a dependable, or entirely serviceable tool. That’s if you suspect that the NSA may be engaged in more than “passive” surveillance.
In the earlier Academy Ward winning documentary “Citizen Four” about Snowden, Jacob Appelbaum, an encryption and security software developer and journalist, testified at a September 2013 European Parliament hearing investigating NSA searches of EU citizens and companies, told the assembly:
There is this myth of the passive surveillance machine, but actually what is surveillance except control? This notion that the NSA are passive this is nonsense. What we see is that they actively attack European citizens, American citizens and, in fact, anyone that they can if they perceive an advantage.Do we need to worry that the NSA puts its finger on the scale to control outcomes? If so, in which situations and how would we know? Would the NSA or other U.S. security agencies only do so abroad, and, if so, in a world without borders, where communications, interactions and influence bounce back and forth across the world, does that matter? . . .
. . . When it comes social media, don’t nearly all of us have foreign Facebook friends or follow people on Twitter who are not U.S. Citizens?
Here is why, when it comes to political dissent or anything that the NSA thinks threatens it, social media may not be a dependable level playing field. (What might government and the NSA feel threatened by?: Perhaps anything that is not sufficiently normative in their opinion, like believing that Edward Snowden deserves a pardon for his self-sacrificing heroism.)
Laura K. Donohue is a Professor of Law at Georgetown Law, Director of Georgetown's Center on National Security and the Law, and Director of the Center on Privacy and Technology. She writes on constitutional law, legal history, emerging technologies, and national security law.
Ms. Donohue was a panelist at a New York County Lawyers Association conference, "Government Surveillance and Privacy Have We Reached a Tipping Point," held June 11, 2015.
Those attending learned some frightening things from Ms. Donohue about how readily social networks monitored by the government can also be manipulated by the government:
If you look at the fields of social network analytics, for instance, it has just rapidly expanded. So, in the academic literature there are hundreds of new books, in physics and mathematics and new technologies in computer science about how to do these social network analytics.Does this actually happen? Donohue continued:
. . . you can look at . . . a person in society, right, any of us, and see what our relationships are with other people, how strong those relationships are by what is called bandwidth, how powerful that individual is, and how to pressure that person by those power relationships. So if, for instance, you are the Democratic administration and you had the Republican-- the RNC mapped out-- their Social networks, you could see who the important nodes were in that network and look at different ways to neutralize them. So you could bring charges, for instance, against them, you could find pressure points and get other individuals to pressure them, you could find ways to isolate them. And that would interrupt the communication network. So you could also use their power to accomplish things in the network.
Now this isn't science fiction: The USAID [US Agency for International Development] tried [secretly] to do this in Cuba, I'm not sure how many of you are up on ZunZuneo [slang for a Cuban hummingbird's tweet]. This was a Cuban Twitter website that the USAID set up in order to build a social network to overthrow the Cuban government. And the idea was that they would start out with innocuous content like weather reports, soccer, music; they would build a social network, figure out where the powerful nodes were in that network and then pressure those nodes to basically bring on a Cuban spring.Donahue qualified this tale by offering her estimation that, “in the end” USAID’s ultimately failed scheme “was up there with exploding cigars and the Bay of Pigs . . . for good ideas in Cuba,” but stressed that “the idea was” this agency of the US Government was “trying to use the social networks to bring about political change.”
And, she said, these tools are very powerful for bringing about such change over time:
And this is an insight from the literature, which is the reason why social network analytics are so powerful is because networks aren't static: they change over time, people’s actions change over time and their perceptions and beliefs are influenced by others in that network. And so that's one of the reasons why the social network analytics are so concerning.Notwithstanding that power, Donahue said, “there is a certain irony” that researchers have found these tools are not particularly effective to do what has been set up as the justification for the government’s collection of massive troves of information (“metadata” about people and their relationships): preventing terrorist organizations that have organized along cell systems.
She explained what she referred to as “the snowballing effect”:
If you are looking at a social network, the denser that network is the more you can tell about it, but in a cell structure where they are communicating very rarely and you are dealing with peripheries it's very hard to tell where those important nodes are in a sparsely populated communication network.Donahue emphasized that exactly what social network manipulation is effective at, targeting “social, political and economic opposition,” is a major concern. She further pointed out how worries about such governmental abuse by the founding fathers were also certainly a concern behind the fourth amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure at the time of the amendment’s adoption. She cited the attention that had been given back then to a customs officer who had used information obtained through his position “to go after political rivals in Boston.” . . Ms. Donohue has a new book coming out where it is to be hoped we can learn a lot more.
So, ironically, it turns out to be an incredibly powerful tool to head off potential social, economic, political opposition and not as an effective way to head off concerted terrorist cell structure activity.
A less than perfectly informed United States citizenry is struggling with what it thinks about Snowden. What it thinks is already quite subtle, complex and perhaps incongruous. The intricacies involved in informing oneself and understanding the issues are formidable.
There are polls showing that a majority of Americans think that what Snowden did was beneficial for the country while at the same time a majority feel he should be prosecuted: See: Time Magazine- Support for Snowden-and His Prosecution- 54% of respondents said the leaker, Edward Snowden, did a "good thing" in releasing information about the government programs, by Zeke J Miller, June 13, 2013 and USA Today- Poll: Snowden should be prosecuted for NSA leaks, by Susan Page, June 18, 2013 ("In a USA TODAY/Pew Research Center Poll, most Americans say the NSA leaker should be prosecuted, but two-thirds don't like the idea the U.S. government is collecting their own communication records.")
With such a delicate balance, what if the NSA castigating Snowden publicly with the help of Obama and Hillary Clinton and much of the major corporate media, also, behind the scenes, puts its thumb secretly on the social media scales?
In theory we have a system of voter elections so that the American populace controls the government and not vice versa. . .
. . . There is, on the other hand, a long list of ways in which one may say that elections have been "rigged." They run the gamut, some more obvious and hard ball than others . . . the Supreme Court, with a partisan split, saying that Bush should be president without Florida's votes being counted in the 2000 election where, when the votes were after-the-fact counted, Gore was apparently the actual victor . . . discriminatory purges of the voter rolls as happened in that same Florida election, and as apparently went uninvestigated in the New York Democratic primary this year . . . there's the age-old practice of gerrymandering voting districts which when newer technology like the program "Maptitude" is stirred into the brew becomes exponentially more pernicious . . . . voter suppression and disenfranchisement . . there is the problem of hacking and unreliable voting machines, like with Florida voting machines running backward in 2000 . . . deploying polling place resources inequitably so that some polling sites will get extra speeding-up assistance (like special election laptops in Florida 2000) and others will frustrate potential voters with very long lines. . . money in politics buying elections and, if that fails, the elected officials afterwards. . there are the efforts by our two major parties to ensure that the rules of election process skew towards perpetuation of a duopoly. . . then there is the imbalance of a corporately owned press.
Suffice it to say that history shows a longstanding interest in, and efforts at, the manipulation of elections by the powerful and, nearly just as frequently, by those in government wielding government's extra powers. Some of those efforts because they seem harsh and heavy-handed generate resistance as their reward, but now add to that traditional arsenal the potential soft power of behind-the-scenes social media manipulation that you might not even sense is there. If effective enough, harsher methods need never be taken out of the cupboard unless they are known to be needed.
With these new technologies it is not just social media that can unobtrusively, subtly manipulate your vote: One of the top under-reported stories of this year is about experiments showing that, using biased search engine rankings, a search engine like Google could shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more. . .
. . . It is one thing for Google to target you and send you health related advertisements even before you, yourself, suspect you have issues. It is another for Google to know how you are to vote before you ever get to consider that matter and make the decision on your own.
Finally, what about Snowden? Are you curious about whether he will actually get his pardon, whether the social media campaign mobilized toward that result could be impeded? One thing you can do is experiment: You could share this article and the recommendations being made for pardon via the social media platforms you use . . and then see if you think what you've shared gets as much traction as you would expect.