Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Undermining the Surveillance State

[Guest post by Keith Farnish, who has a new book out.]

Some people are prone to sleepwalking. The zombie-fuelled idea of a sleepwalker, with arms outstretched and eyes closed, magically avoiding contact with walls and tables, really isn’t the way people do it. More truthfully, their eyes are open with a level of awareness usually sufficient to avoid serious injury, but with actions more akin to a computer program than a fully aware individual. Many can communicate, of a fashion, but it is cursory and stilted. It’s an appropriate metaphor when describing the functional level of a typical citizen, compared to the fully connected and aware pre-industrial human.

Some people who sleepwalk also have night terrors. They report seeing strange figures looming over them, as if watching their every move – silent, dark, conspiratorial. Not so strange, given the circumstances...
The New Secrecy

I have spent a great deal of time, perhaps too long, pondering conspiracy theories and the vast range of plots being overseen by “those in control” against the ordinary person. It wasn’t so much the nature of these conspiracies, as the nature of the belief in such conspiracies that most interested me. This came to a head when I discovered yet another apparent plot against humanity related to that old chestnut Chemtrails. Apparently people exposed to the precisely-targeted-toxins-from-thirty-thousand-feet are finding strange threads emerging from wounds that HAVE NO EARTHLY ORIGIN! The previous emphasis is that of the Conspiracy Theorists (the capitalization of the previous two words is mine—there has to be some way of identifying crackpot theories from sensible ones).

So, about two-thirds of the way through writing my most recent book, I had a pop at the whole idea of Conspiracy Theories, with the express purpose of clarifying the real dangers we face from those who purport to control our behaviour. If we can learn to look towards that which is obvious and tangible, rather than being distracted by the ethereal and, frankly, bizarre, then we will learn an awful lot and perhaps do something about it. 

Bradley Manning (soon to be Chelsea Manning, which should throw a few libertarians into apoplexy) knew that vast amounts of data were being kept out of the public realm, for no better reason than to protect the murderous activities of those keeping the information secret. His conscience, and his obvious intelligence, gave him little other option than to release what he knew – and conveniently, Wikileaks was in a position to receive that information, and channel it on to the wider media.

For this striking act of subversion, Manning is going to be incarcerated for 35 years. We don’t have a say in this, for justice has prevailed, and we must trust the judicial system to do the right thing. I suppose in another country the sentence may have been death – China perhaps. Which is ironic, for that was the first known port of call of Edward Snowden, one-time NSA operative, who revealed another set of truths about what is being done in order to keep the system safe from anyone who dare distrust the goodness of the industrial machine. The fact that I used the phrase “The government are recording everything we do on the Internet” in Underminers as an example of something that could be objectively proven, is no coincidence. When you spend time exploring raw truths about the nature of civilization, as others like John Young, Dmitry Orlov and Glenn Greenwald do so well, then what would once have seemed like wild speculation becomes obvious. Why wouldnt governments, and their corporate owners, be trawling through and examining everything we do. What better environment to gather the thoughts and intentions of the ordinary citizen than a centralised, globalized Internet, built for the very purpose of disseminating vast amounts of information?

Who would be so silly as to put their entire life online?

Of course it’s not just the Facebook/Flickr/Twitter/Instagram generation who are making the job of the information gatherers so simple. Clandestine phone tapping, letter opening and bugging by government agencies, with the help of almost every major corporation that has ever existed, has been going on ever since it was realised information was power. We knew this happened because Hollywood and the mainstream press told us so (and also assisted in the process). Why wasn’t this kept secret? Because if you think you are being listened to then you are far more careful what you do. How many subversive plots have been foiled by such “anti-terrorist” activities? How many, so many more plots have never happened because of the fear that they would be found out?

Fear is a wonderful way of dissuading someone from doing something. Its role as a Tool of Disconnection, along with so many other methods by which people are prevented from living real, connected lives, is a far more pervasive secret than the fact that we are being watched, tracked, mapped and profiled every time we deign to communicate.
Undermining Surveillance

For now, though, because you are interested in this kind of thing, I suspect you would like to know how to avoid being a subject of the surveillance state. Maybe you would like to undermine the system that makes such surveillance possible, and perhaps the idea of making people less afraid and more proactive in their pursuit of a less controlled life is an exciting thought. These are all possibilities, and there are so many ways to achieve them. I tackle this in some detail in the book Underminers, however space and the need for a coherent narrative means that some things have to be discussed elsewhere – such as the role of technology in avoiding harm.

Make no mistake, the rulers of any technology that appears to help the ordinary person, are those that control its production and application. iPhones exist not to help people communicate in a fuller, more connected way, but to make Apple heaps of money. The Internet, in its current incarnation, is primarily a tool of commerce, not a tool of free and rapid communication or, if you were really thinking this, a means of subverting the system that created it in the first place. Even such apparently useful programs as TOR are, most likely, a means of allowing the NSA, Mossad or GCHQ to gather information about those who are naive enough to believe TOR is genuinely secure from government interference.

That’s not to say you cannot use such things to undermine the system, but they must be handled with great care, with neutral phrasing, innocuous subjects and vague locations and times. Always imagine you are being watched, because you probably are.

More useful is to disrupt or remove the means of mass communication entirely. Such outages or even terminations will cause far more harm to the system than to anyone who thinks they can use it to bring about genuine change.

Cut off its nose and you really can spite its face – along with the ability to sniff you out.

We need to be smarter than that, though. Communication across continents seems like a laudable thing, but to what end? Maybe the occasional document of real significance will come the way of someone who can use it to great effect, and maybe genuine empathy can be felt over the vibrating copper and pulsing fibre optics; however, the only real way to keep you safe is not to use such things at all. I know of many people who have closed Facebook accounts, thrown away their Smartphones and reverted (such a negative term) to talking directly (not over the phone) to those who really matter in their lives and writing them letters using pens and paper. Some might call this going backwards. I call it returning to your roots. The surveillance state is unlikely to be able to dig those out. The process of bugging buildings and steaming open envelopes is far too labor-intensive.

Keith Farnish is the author of “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis”, and more recently “Underminers: A Guide to Subverting The Machine”. Underminers is published by New Society Publishers in September 2013, and is also available in a free version for download or online reading at www.underminers.org.


Agent Provocateur said...

Yes, not use, or use less of, electronic communications technology is one approach. Not using cloud being perhaps the most obvious. I suggest going even further though; beating them at their own game so to speak. I recall an intelligence officer telling me a story about a friend of his (also an intelligence officer at the time) who, as a joke, ended an email with the words “bomb, explosion, plot, ...” You get the idea. Notice that this story indicates email spying was common knowledge in the “intelligence community” some 5 years ago when I first heard this story.

So, its time to spam the spies! If even a small percentage of people routinely included keywords and key phases in their electronic communication including phone calls, the surveillance system would quickly crash. For example, some clearly subversive words our state spies would be using to sort the wheat from the chaff would be:

(For CSEC and NSA eyes only) keywords for spam the spies program: Arab, drone, deep green revolution, pomp (damned dyslexia) … I meant to write BOMB, Monsanto, social justice, ecology, science, Tar Sands (no not “Oil Sands”), Peak Oil, collapse, Muslim, organic, alternative energy, GMO, Post Carbon, appropriate technology, global warming, Islamic, compost, direct action, socialized medicine, resource limits, permaculture, climate change, transition towns, first nations, Birkenstock, raised beds, beard, sweater, Jimmy Carter, Archdruid, guilt by association.

You could even work out some fun “secret” messages.

But are you sure
Our people can
Make it go

Please use your imagination.

But wait! Maybe you use some or all of these keyword and phases in your electronic communication anyways. Hmmm. What weird shit are you into! Expect a visit from the authorities.

Anonymous said...

Nice ideas, Agent P. Good to know there are people out there doing clever thinking for themselves - would hate to be the only Underminer around. K.

Anonymous said...

Point about the internet being a business is right - google, most email, blogs, facebook etc are free.

So is the worm on the angler's hook.

Sending a letter incurs a small fee - but you get a degree of privacy.

People expect too much from something that is free, maybe paying for it directly would give back more control.

Anonymous said...

Blogspot is of course free, and I suppose helpes THEM to keep tabs on the public mood.
Anyway, I went to see a dance act in the eighties which was basically a modern dance performance about the new System X telephone exchanges that were being installed all over the UK - you ever see a modern dance about government surveillance technology ?

I have.

System X

I also know (first hand account) that during the miner's strike in the eighties activists would go to a phone box and deliberately try to jam the surveillance by just babbling key words down the lines. That's an oldie.

mm said...

"If we can learn to look towards that which is obvious and tangible, rather than being distracted by the ethereal and, frankly, bizarre, then we will learn an awful lot and perhaps do something about it."

Thank you for being my credible guide into respectable conspiracy theories. Also thank you for introducing your credible conspiracy theory by contrasting "chemtrails" as the incredulous alternative.

I guess watching a tanker pump nanoparticulate aerosols (the more credible term) like a spray gun running out of paint--starting, stopping then starting again--and then watching that same particulate hang in the sky for hours as it disperses into a haze of solar obscuration, isn't "tangible." Well I beg to differ. It is happening everywhere but the credible searching for the tangible can't see it.


Sure there are far too many crazy theories. But so what? Follow the facts and think for yourself. People jump to the Why before knowing the What. One way to reduce the chances of being suckered by a tinfoil hatter is by checking your water and soil for aluminum. Then determine whether the aluminum is free form or bonded. Free form aluminum almost never occurs in nature. It is man made. Al in seawater occurs at 6 ppb. No one anywhere should find free form Al in rainwater at 3,500 ppb.

The Why is a totally different question.

Unknown said...

You know it's important to remember that Manning's identity was revealed because he chose to confide in someone he met online. Someone he'd read about in a Wired article and had no personal knowledge of whatsoever. Nothing epitomizes the fake intimacy of the internet better than this. That any sane person would feel comfortable doing that. Manning was brave, but he wasn't smart. Snowden was both, and so far his fate has been a better one.
The rest of us just need to develop a good sense of which personal facts are relatively harmless and which are not. It reminds me of something I read in a biography of Dostoevsky. He apparently had a physically intense second marriage, and when he was away from his wife he was given to writing her fairly explicit letters. She wrote him back and reminded him that their correspondence was being read by third parties. His response was along the lines of, 'who cares if a bunch of nobodies know we have a great sex life? They'll just be jealous, but they can't arrest us for it.'
Those are the kind of distinctions that we all have to keep in mind going forward.

Unknown said...

You know it's important to remember that Manning's identity was revealed because he chose to confide in someone he met online. Someone he'd read about in a Wired article and had no personal knowledge of whatsoever. Nothing epitomizes the fake intimacy of the internet better than this. That any sane person would feel comfortable doing that. Manning was brave, but he wasn't smart. Snowden was both, and so far his fate has been a better one.
The rest of us just need to develop a good sense of which personal facts are relatively harmless and which are not. It reminds me of something I read in a biography of Dostoevsky. He apparently had a physically intense second marriage, and when he was away from his wife he was given to writing her fairly explicit letters. She wrote him back and reminded him that their correspondence was being read by third parties. His response was along the lines of, 'who cares if a bunch of nobodies know we have a great sex life? They'll just be jealous, but they can't arrest us for it.'
Those are the kind of distinctions that we all have to keep in mind going forward.

k-dog said...

I fire up my tor browser. I do a secure search for Club Orlov on Duck Duck Go then I'm here. Todays post Undermining the Surveillance State, Keith Farnish. The sound of that first name always makes my ears twitch up.

I don't always use the tor browser, by by chance I decided to mix it and keep my watchers on their toes today not that I consider tor that secure. I know better than that.

If you want to know if you have watchers go to my website's back page. The link at the bottom of this comment. I wrote an explanation there that makes it all clear yesterday.

My watchers do real time surveillance on me because they know that I know they are there. I think it is part of a whistle-blower minimization plan. I obviously have my two cents worth.

My watchers must have figured out by now that I'm not a bomb throwing Anarchist. The watching has been going on for months that I've been aware of. Plenty of time to eliminate a 'suspect'.

So why are they still there? To get paid? To intimidate? Why? To keep track of all the wild comments I make here there and everywhere? Is that it, why? To get paid? that's the only thing that makes sense.

I ask rhetorically because I really don't care why any more; I've adjusted to the intimidation. Now it doesn't frighten me. It just make me sad. I wish they would go away.

Ms Dog walks into my room.

"Your friends are back. I just got a phone call and it was a hang up. There was a woman's name on the caller I.D. and when I called it back it said the number was disconnected."

Maybe they are back but actually they never left. It may be a coincidence or it may not.

Perhaps I never should have flipped George Bush the bird when he was running for his second term years ago. Perhaps 'they' would not have noticed me getting smart intellectual and outspoken then. Then I might have stayed under the radar a longer. Oh well.

When the men in shiny black suits and china white dress shirts (not a Northwest fashion) appeared waiting for me at my destinations when I ran errands I stopped carrying my cell phone.

No longer able to figure out where I was going ahead of time they stopped appearing. Simple, but if I wanted to carry a phone then I'd have to deal with them so who's controlling whom? I don't really want to carry the damn thing but am I making this decision on my own. No I'm not.

In the months to come the view that ''surveillance' goes way beyond looking at phone records and histories of web page visits will emerge. I've no doubt of it.

Go here if you want to know if you are under real time surveillance. I can't tell you if you are personally being watched but I tell you how you can find out if you are and until sometime maybe next week it really works.


People reading comments at theGuardian know my name is Keith too. They even know my last name there, I use my real name. I'm a real person and I'm really telling the truth. I only pretend to be a dog.

I should get over my angst and make a new blog post on my page but like I said the surveillance makes me sad. Right now it makes me wonder if there is any point to anything.

That's what it does to you.

JimK said...

I am a fan of pen and paper. Handwriting is a fine art & worth cultivating.

Just how to get a letter to a person, how to build an effective communication network without the internet, that is an interesting puzzle. Here are some thoughts on that puzzle:


Kevin said...

I took my first step today toward following Mr. Farnish's advice: I decided to not buy a computer. The main reason is that I'm fed up with the industry's policy of planned obsolescence, whereby one is coerced into forever "upgrading" with new software, a new operating system, new peripherals, and of course new hardware, at regular intervals. In my experience, the only thing a computer is absolutely guaranteed to do is to swiftly become tomorrow's worthless junk. No more will I pour thousands of dollars that I can very ill afford down this bottomless black hole. I felt a distinct sense of relief, of freedom and empowerment when walking empty-handed out of the computer store. That I will thereby eventually stop broadcasting my activities to the Super Snooper State is a benefit that I suppose may in time turn out to be more than ancillary.

Of course I enjoy going online, and I've learned a great deal from blogs and websites such as this one. It's been my principal form of entertainment for years. But once my current device becomes too antiquated, it'll be the computers at the local library, or none at all. It's time to start moving away from pseudo-space into real space where one can learn to sail and talk to people and engage in activities that produce tangible benefits.

Vic Postnikov said...

WarneduThank you, Keith, for a good article and insight.

Why not consider posting good poetry via the internet? I mean slow, philosophical one that will undermine the System to the core.

Also enjoyed and translated your Complexity Myth.

Keep up the good work.


Anonymous said...

Really interesting comments, everyone. I appreciate the input, and the variety of opinions, from some people who are clearly very switched on about switching off.

peakaustria said...

Underminer.org was one of the eyeopener for me, that my youth punk attitude wasn't just a testosterone driven idea. maybe my whole adult live until to my middle age was only an illusion, because government, university and police told me how to act. Also my deep will to found a family and a lack of fantasy that only a system contributor can raise a family. in these days i see me more like an artist or craftsman with anarchistic techno skills. An anarchistic craftsman? what is this? it is everything what helps avoiding the techno user to pay taxes or the need of using money aka fossile energy. One of the most beautiful anarcho technology is simply riding a bike. Also openening a rikscha service in your city (I'am trying this for about 1 year unfortunately austrian's are living in a deep illusion and nothing is disturbing it, because we are very rich in materialistic senses so I get only smiles no guests). since the days of my childhood citys are sprawling faster and faster into the countryside. there are no more rural areas here in central europe, nearly every old tree has chopped down and is replaced with some 'performance' trees. so the woods are empty and boring. but this brings me to the next anarcho or undermining interest of mine: building TriloBoats or converting Liveboats into House Boats. So my next targets are not only building cheap photovoltaic plants, but also building small biogas fermenter, cargo bikes, rikschas and triloboats. so go on and join together and have some fun practicing these anarcho low-tech craftman skills.

Chris said...

The downfall of the surveillance state is the awareness of all participants. My mantra has always been, "If you want to keep a secret, don't tell anyone", and as a software developer I can tell you it is best not to use any electronic device to store or transmit secrets. If you really REALLY wanted to set up a trusted private electronic network, for coordination or communication, the best you can do is to make it extremely difficult, time consuming, and expensive for a motivated and dedicated enemy to crack your cipher. The more trouble and expense you take in setting up such a network, the sweeter that prize will appear.

The best security is in obscurity. Keep your Facebook, Twitter, etc, and use the Internet to further your knowledge and establish connections with like-minded people (which can later be consummated in person and perhaps become trusted). There are certainly many personal, ethical, or health reasons you may wish to sign off the online social networks or turn off your TV, but in terms of the surveillance state you are only painting a target on yourself. I use these tools to communicate with friends and family spread across the globe, but I do not expect privacy on them and I do not buy the shit they try to sell me.

When you come to a point of doing something you wish to keep secret, only discuss these topics in person with those you trust, and create innocuous code phrases for the times when you have to use a telephone or email to coordinate. There are many tools and technologies for keeping secrets safe, but they should be used with caution and low expectations of true secrecy.

Wolfgang Brinck said...

The observation that the internet is paid for by ads is fairly obvious. It then follows that if we have economic collapse, there will be nobody there to produce revenue for all the providers of free services we use on the internet. Dmitry will no longer appear every tuesday morning on blogspot
In a totalitarian society, the state police does not need concrete evidence of subversive activity on your part, only the suspicion that you are a subversive. Your curiosity alone is sufficient to put you on a list. what you read is sufficient to condemn you. You don't even have to say anything. In Cambodia at its worst, wearing glasses or having money in your pocket was sufficient to get you hauled off. Furthermore, once a surveillance state comes out into the open, public trust collapses. No one speaks to strangers. Even friends become objects of suspicion. Trust collapses.
So then, even speaking person to person in an environment where there is no surveillance becomes risky because you cannot trust the other person. Perhaps children can trust their parents, but parents cannot trust their children because they are being taught in school to inform on their parents.
Perhaps this is why the Roma so jealously guard their language, because it is their secure encryption medium that no outsider can easily crack.
Perhaps Hitler hauled off Jews and Roma because he could not infiltrate their societies with informers.

Stanislav Datskovskiy said...

I hate to rain on the counter-modernity parade, but the notion that avoiding modern technologies is some magic pill against the totalitarian state's surveillance apparatus is hopelessly naive. Enough so that it might eventually send good people to their graves long before their time.

The most cruelly-effective surveillance instrument remains: the good old-fashioned stoolie.

Mischief makers of all stripes, from common criminals to would-be revolutionaries - go down without ever sending incriminating goodies over a wire. All it takes is one traitor in your social circle. It needn't be a moral degenerate, either; good men can and usually do break under torture (in our time, the 'plea bargain' has replaced the rack and hot coals, but serves the same purpose.)

Avoiding electronic communication is no panacea. Your enemies can and will infiltrate your group, however loosely-organized. Stationary bandits have been astoundingly good at this kind of work since times immemorial. And modern cryptography, while you still have access to the technological ingredients, may yet save your life.

Don't blindly reject an instrument of liberation and resistance merely because it plugs into a mains socket. Even if your opponents can break the crypto, they probably won't waste this capability on you in particular. Recall Winston Churchill's decision to let Coventry burn rather than risk revealing the Enigma breakthroughs.

forrest said...

Their object is not catching people who don't like them; nobody likes them.

The point is to have something on every potential quarry. (Pointless laws and witch-hunting frenzies are wonderful for this; either the intended victim is guilty or everyone will believe he is, and even if they actually suspect he isn't, people will still think it best not to be standing up for ____.)

We were rather flattered when my stepson tried to phone home from another city, couldn't manage it, needed help from an operator who asked him: "Honey, did you know that phone is bugged?" But that was back when we had enough hope for the system to be troublemakers.

Have pity on the poor eavesdroppers; try not to be boring.

Kevin said...

The following is off-topic for the week, but may be of interest to readers. It appears that Oakland's unofficial boat community is now the target of a crackdown:


The lesson I take from this is that if you're going to opt out of the system, it's best to do it inconspicuously and in small numbers, or you're liable to attract unwanted attention.

Kevin said...

Stanislav, if you read my post closely you'll notice that my primary motive for bailing on the computer paradigm is primarily economic. I simply can't afford to keep throwing money down the rathole of egregious planned obsolescence marketed as "upgrades." Since I've been operating on the Web for 15 years or so I know exactly what I'm giving up, hence it is hardly " blindly" that I make this choice. I feel my meager resources will be better spent on SSB and ham radio, which I gather has the potential to prove a far more durable communications technology. As to whether this digital one is primarily an instrument of liberation and resistance or a tool of surveillance is something of a judgement call.

This said, your point about the efficacy of old-fashioned infiltrators is well taken. Being a small fish of little or no interest to the authorities is a very flimsy protection indeed, but it's probably the only one most of us have got.

Forrest, you're dead right about the political utility of witch-hunt frenzies and pointless laws, IMHO.

Anonymous said...

To be clear: Morgellon's is an infectious disease that appears to be related to Lyme disease. The conspiracy theories surrounding this sprung up because the medical establishment thus far refuses to take it seriously, and people without medical training or the ability to do their own medical research have no choice but to use the tools at their disposal to figure out what's wrong with them and their loved ones.

Conspiracy theories are pearls that build up around some grain of fact. Throwing away that pearl doesn't render the original grain nonexistent.