Elliot Cohen’s reputation for prescient reporting precedes his new book, “Mass Surveillance and State Control: The Total Information Awareness Project.” In 2007, years before today’s comparatively widespread coverage of the Comcast-NBC merger and other threats to net neutrality, Cohen won the first place Project Censored award for his story about the free speech implications of the 2005 Supreme Court decision cementing the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) position that telecommunications laws could not be applied to cable modem services.
This time, Cohen zeros in on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Total Information Awareness project, a comprehensive surveillance program begun under the Bush administration that continues under Obama and that Cohen characterizes as an “Orwellian nightmare.” In the book, Cohen tackles a topic ripe for speculation and paranoia with an approach that is both urgent and measured, tempering the terrifying results of his research with two simple questions – how bad could it get, and what can we do about it?
Alissa Bohling: People are exposed to a lot of apocalyptic narratives these days. What would you say to readers who might think a book like this is alarmist?
Elliot Cohen: It’s certainly sounding an alarm, but the urgency of sounding the alarm is warranted; it’s evidence based. There are a lot of reasons for thinking that this needs to be taken seriously. There are two kinds of alarms. One is just panicking and not really having any evidence and not knowing what to do. The book, on the other hand, has a rational approach. Basically what I’m saying is that there’s evidence for thinking that we’re moving in a direction of a controlled society, a controlled culture. It isn’t that we’re one hundred percent there, but there are dangerous trends, and if we don’t do anything to offset them, then we really will be in some serious trouble. If the book is perceived as being overreactive, it’s better – as I say in the book – to go in that direction than to simply put one’s head in the ground and act as though there’s really no problem.
AB: One of the most chilling examples you give of the components of the Total Information Awareness program is the Systems of Neuropmorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) Initiative. Can you talk about some of its goals?
EC: Basically, to create a global brain. The idea is to monitor virtually the whole earth, whether it’s the seas, the air – and this includes humans as well as animals – in the most intimate and personal way, which would include monitoring humans’ minds, their thoughts, their feelings, their actions. And this is, as you say, very chilling, but the reality of it is that they’re already doing the research to make this happen. They put almost $5 million from DARPA to start the project, and IBM and a number of universities are involved. So that’s the kind of futuristic, “beyond ‘1984’” vision. We don’t normally think of surveillance going that far, but DARPA is known for its futuristic visions, and the SyNAPSE, or Global Brain, Initiative is one of them – and it is indeed very chilling.
AB: There’s even a scenario you describe in which, if the technology were mainstreamed into human brains, it would almost be like pay-to-play Internet, but in the human mind itself.
EC: The idea is that right now, we’re into an Internet of things, where things are hooked up – with goals such as inventory control and so forth – to be able to locate, track and monitor things by virtue of putting them online. So it’s an interesting concept of the physical world interfacing with cyberspace. But the next step is this Global Brain Initiative, which takes the concept one step further and replaces things with human beings – human beings go online. So it would be very easy, if this became mainstreamed, for government to keep constant surveillance on human beings in the most intimate ways. We worry now about the kinds of technologies people must endure in getting on an airplane – there needs to be some consciousness-raising about how far this can really go. I think those who are objecting to this kind of thing right now are on the right track – I’m talking about the body scans at airports electronically undressing people – because ultimately this pattern is going to culminate in increased dosages of these kinds of intrusive technologies. There has to be a point where we say, “We’re drawing a line in the sand,” because, as you see from the discussions in the book, technology can become utterly devastating as far as privacy is concerned.
AB: What surprised me so much about the scanner issue in particular was that just before Thanksgiving, a grassroots-appearing, more or less anonymous group started to organize a protest, and then the protest was essentially a flop. So you wonder where the public is at.
EC: The problem with the public is that they’re willing to take an extra step. First it’s taking off your shoes and putting your stuff through scanners: “That makes sense, all right, we’ll do that.” Then it becomes more intrusive, and they’ll say, “Okay, we’ll do that.” So you don’t get to the end of this continuum immediately; you take gradual steps, and the problem is that with each gradual step, you don’t realize how far you’ve gone down that road. But at some point, people are likely to turn around, and maybe not even realize it – it might just seem part of life. And the idea of freedom might still be discussed as though it exists – however, it won’t.
AB: Talk about the contract the FBI awarded Lockheed Martin to develop “Next Generation Identification” (NGI).
EC: In 2005, the FBI began work on a database of biometric data, and that database, which contained almost 7 million profiles by 2009, is part of the Total Information Awareness system. Initially, it included only those convicted of crimes; however in 2009 it was expanded to include people who were not convicted of any crimes, such as those awaiting trial and detained immigrants. The goal has been to include as many legally innocent people as possible, allegedly to help solve more violent crimes, but we can expect that eventually, all of us will have a biometric data file on tap.
Having these NGI ID cards would enable government to keep track of people in their transport. When they want to go to another country, instead of a passport, they would have this universal identification card that would be linked to their biometric data. And this, I think, is pretty likely to occur. The NGI system is largely interested in keeping track of people by virtue of what’s unique about them, using identifiers like the eye’s iris, which is unique to each individual, and even including their DNA. In 2008, to the tune of a billion dollars per year, the FBI gave a ten-year contract to Lockheed Martin to develop the database, and at this point that database is already quite developed.
The biometric database is actually one component of a massive set of interfacing databases which includes the National Security Agency’s database of electronic communication, email searches, and so forth. So it’s all integrated. The aim is to create a virtually seamless system of data. The program is immense in its undertaking, but all the components are in place and the architecture is there.
The NSA electronic component is another component, and then you have surveillance cameras in major cities. Some of those cameras just store video and they’re not observed, but other cameras are actually linked to this network of surveillance, and that includes the biometric data. So, for instance, by virtue of facial recognition software, agents conducting surveillance can key the facial recognition data into this database and relate that to biometric data, and they can get a whole profile, and if it’s an individual on a terrorist watch list, they can identify that individual immediately. But at the same time, what you need to understand is that that’s the ideal of it working right – but do you think it’s going to work right? And the answer to that is no. I’ve spoken to many software developers and actually have a patent of my own on filtering technology, and there’s a very high incidence of false positives.
AB: So was the majority of your research talking to people in the technology sector, or did you also find people from some of the agencies who were willing to talk about the program? It seems like it would be really closely guarded information.
EC: It was difficult to get information directly. A lot of the activities that interested me were being conducted by corporations. A lot of that information I was able to get by looking on old websites of corporations, looking at some of the connections between individuals, between their firms and government, and searching out the revolving door and putting the pieces together as far as what companies are producing which constructs for Total Information Awareness.
One of the chief companies that came up was Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). SAIC is one of the main contributors to Total Information Awareness software, which began development in 2002 under the Bush administration. That company kept coming up in my research in so many different places, from the very inception of my research. Then I noticed that the Bush administration’s Secretary of Defense, who’s now the Obama administration’s Secretary of Defense – this is Robert Gates – was on the board of SAIC at one point. And then his chief information officer, a guy by the name of Michael Donley, was also a senior vice president of Hicks and Associates, which was a fully owned subsidiary of SAIC. It goes even further, because in 2003, Gates was an adviser for an electronic voting machine technology company, Vote Here, and it turns out that that company also has ties to SAIC, by virtue of the fact that its chairman at the time Gates was an adviser to the company was a guy who was the former vice chair of SAIC’s board. So when you start connecting the dots, it’s a revolving door, with these corporations getting rich on government contracts. And it doesn’t appear that this is changing. The same players keep coming up.
Another example is the Rendon Corporation. This is the company that basically created the script for the Iraq war. It was a public relations war right from the start, with the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue and staging so many events – and it turns out that Obama hires this same company to screen embedded journalists.
The idea of the book is to show how all these pieces fit together. One of the things that’s fueling the whole phenomenon is this idea of the War on Terror. As long as there’s a War on Terror, we can justify more and more intrusive means of surveillance. So it keeps growing, and, like a cancer, it just keeps getting more and more metastasized until eventually we’re moving further and further in this direction of a controlled society. And I think you can see it now, just with this little microcosm of what’s going on at airports – it’s not going to change unless we do something about it.
AB: Talk about the role of “digitized racial profiling” in all of this. In one of your solutions chapters you call for codifying an end to this practice.
EC: One of the problems there is that quite recently, toward the end of the Bush administration or the beginning of the Obama administration, the FBI changed its rules about how you can go about investigating terror suspects, and basically they said that using racial criteria is acceptable. So once you open up that floodgate, a lot of things are possible. We’re all familiar with what’s going on in Arizona, but this is a little different. There are systems of databases that hunt for terrorists. And how do you hunt for terrorists? If racial criteria are acceptable, then you can digitize it. In other words, you can create an algorithm, and put it into your technologies, that looks for people of Middle Eastern descent, or who have names like Mohammad. So if somebody happens to be a guy of Middle Eastern descent named Mohammad, and maybe somebody emailed him who was emailed by some other guy who was somehow linked to al-Qaeda, suddenly this other guy named Mohammad is in deep trouble. Again, it’s an example of the false positives that can result from these kinds of technologies.
AB: Going back to your work looking at corporations’ ties to government agencies, the book also alludes to Google’s ties with the NSA, CIA and FBI: Can you elaborate?
EC: Google is basically a technological whore who is willing to work for any company that will support its bottom line, and government contracts are very lucrative. So, as we know from the past, Google was willing to work for China and created Google.cn – which basically was not profitable for it, so it got out of China – but it was willing to engage in creating a censored version of its search engine that catered to government intrusions and violations of privacy. So it’s willing, for its price, to do that kind of thing.
It works with government to create a database to surveil government employees. In fact, Google has worked with government to help it spy on all of us. Federal government agencies, including the CIA and FBI, under the direction of the National Intelligence Director have a shared, massive, intranet database called Intelink, which is part of the TIA network I discuss in the book. Interlink includes a social networking component called Intellipedia, which Google helped to build in 2008. So Google has been supplying the software, hardware and even the tech support for this component of the TIA program.
Government employees who use Intellipedia are also required to have a homepage with their personal information on it, much like a Facebook account. Some federal employees appear reluctant to use the system, but there appears to be pressure on them from their agencies to do so.
Another gnawing question is whether Google is also supplying government with its users’ information. Google has in fact refused to answer this question directly, claiming that it complies with all proper government law enforcement requests. So you can draw your own conclusions about how cooperative Google is being with government, especially when major defense contracts like Intellipedia are at stake.
Google is really not a “do no evil” corporation. It’s so humongously big and so bent on profit, and it’s so cheap in its approach. My interpretation of Google is that whatever is cost effective, Google will do it.
AB: What would an effective resistance to the trend of increasing state surveillance look like? Or are we seeing an organized resistance already?
EC: The only healthy sign that I’ve seen lately are the few people who are protesting going through electronic body scanners. It seems like many people, just as I was saying, see it as an inevitable sacrifice for protection, but they’re not stopping to think how serious it is to be devoid of privacy. Without privacy, you don’t want to speak. Without speaking, you don’t have free speech. So it’s not only Fourth Amendment rights, it’s also First Amendment rights that will go by the way with this system.
So what are the alternatives? I think people need to – and this is the purpose of the book – create a grassroots awareness of what’s going on. If my examples are chilling, well, they’re intended to be. Is this all science fiction? No. The technologies are developed, even if in incipient form; it’s a technological imperative that when technologies gets developed, people try to use them. So we’re looking at a need for people to start saying, “No, we’re not going to accept surveillance cameras everywhere we go.” It’s sort of commonplace now for them to be, but we have to stop being so docile and accepting and stop listening to this baloney that we need this in order to be free. It’s this idea from Big Brother in Orwell’s “1984,” that you have to be enslaved to be free. Freedom in slavery – that’s absurd! If you don’t have your freedom, your life is no longer valuable. If we’re fighting for freedom, we need to define what it is before we don’t have any left.
What can government do to fix some of this stuff? People seem to be willing to accept warrantless mass surveillance to be safe from the next terrorist attack, but they don’t realize that there’s also a safety valve that can be put on this kind of technology. John Poindexter, who was one of the original people who started the Total Information Awareness project, wanted to have privacy software put on the systems so that the software would track patterns that looked like terrorists, but personal details would be encrypted, and the only way you could see those details would be through court order. But that technology was scrapped, so there are no safeguards whatsoever, so far as I can see or learn about. Essentially, once you open up this door and say, well, if we have warrantless surveillance and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts rubber-stamp procedures and don’t even see the algorithms that are used, then there’s no protection of privacy, there are no so-called minimization standards that really mean anything in terms of making sure that people’s rights aren’t violated.
And what is the Obama administration doing? It is not only accepting the fact that we can’t sue these telecommunication companies, like AT&T and others, which was part of the FISA legislation that Obama himself voted for – not only that, but the Obama administration, under the Holder Justice Department, argued recently that people can’t even sue the government if their privacy rights are violated, even if the government is engaging in illegal spying, unless the government willfully discloses it to somebody else. They used some out-of-the-way part of the Patriot Act to justify that. So the Obama administration is moving in the same direction as the Bush administration. And people are becoming very complacent. So the reason for the book is to try and do what I can to get people to see that this is not an issue to be tucked under the rug.
AB: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
EC: This is the only book out there that actually tries to connect the dots between big media and technology companies and government, and the politics of it. One thing that’s extremely disconcerting is the proposed merger between NBC Universal and Comcast. It would be the biggest merger in history, really, and the significance of it is so widespread, and this is under the Obama FCC. So now the idea of net neutrality is greatly in jeopardy because you would have one major gatekeeper of the Internet pipes also controlling the programming that’s going down them, or a large mass of it. And part of the whole Total Information Control issue is the commandeering of the Internet.
Right now we’re very lucky to have an Internet where we can look things up in a way where we can actually learn something, but the more we move down this road of Total Information Control, not only are we going to be watched, but the same kinds of software that report facts about all the people who are sending emails and talking on telephones and surfing the Internet will also be screening the files out to determine what we can hear and see and what we can’t. The legal architecture is basically in gear. We no longer have common carriage on these systems of electronic communication: in other words, the people who own the pipes can control what kind of content flows through it – that’s all legal now. The companies want to create a system of so-called pay for play, where only the people who have a lot of money can get good bandwidth and thereby communicate their message, whereas the poor guys who have a little website aren’t going to be very audible.
AB: Many of the groups and individuals involved in progressive causes are these smaller, low- or no- budget operations, and for them the Internet is really their one big resource. So you wonder where they’re going to go.
EC: If the Internet is no longer a medium for those who are taking up progressive causes, they’re not going to have a leg to stand on. I don’t want to sound that black or white, but the window of time we have to reverse the trends – if it is the case, as I document in the book, that we are moving in a direction of control rather than freedom and autonomy – then now’s the time to make the move to protect that freedom. We can’t wait until it’s gone and there’s no Internet, there’s no means of communicating freely and virtually everything is controlled and monitored. That’s not the time to say we’ve had enough – that’s the time when the show’s over. Legally, too, it’s easy to tear down a system of democracy. It’s a heck of a lot harder to rebuild it.