Steve Wright is director of the OMEGA foundation, and author of the report on technologies of political control for the European Parliament. He spoke to Wolfgang Sützl about actual developments concerning surveillance technology and his optimism that global surveillance will soon become a political issue.
Q: Steve, since we last met in Brussels in July 2000 has there been any significant development in terms of surveillance technology?
A: There have been a lot of changes. There is the RIP (Regulation of investigatory powers) bill in Britain, which is a manifestation of the EU-FBI agreement actually made small scale in a country like the UK. We've had news in the States of Carnivore, the FBI system that can actually enter people's hard disks and take out all of their correspondence and we've had the fight back: we've had more and more comment on Echelon, we've had France deciding to take legal action, we've had ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) do their work in publicizing what actually went on in the States. And perhaps most significant for Europeans, we've had the beginning of workings of the European parliament's Echelon committee which will do a full and proper investigation into the economic and social impacts of the American global interception system.
Q: So you're actually quite optimistic about what the parliament can achieve in its inquiry?
A: One always needs to be cautious, after all the European parliament has very little power but I'm optimistic that this initiative will make the whole area of global surveillance a political issue and the question of an accountability and transparency a matter of politicians to argue through as a subject for a regiment debate. A few years ago it was nowhere, now people are seeing the dangers and I think that's important.
Q: Do you think there will be a general weakening of the traditional national security argument in politics as a result of this?
A: We're on the threshold of change in military strategy. The end of the cold war is seen a gap in military spending which is being quickly filled. The old enemies have gone and the military expenditure is now higher than it was at the height of the cold war. The new enemy is cyber-terrorists. It's the idea that information warfare will be the warfare of the future and all those that oppose national capital like environmentalists, like the people at the WTO-meetings now have to be tracked. I think it's a about selling the idea to a wider public and persuading people to believe what is nonsense. There's this pyramid-building in the US on behalf of the military-industrial complex and they're looking for new enemies. Accompanying this, there is a shift in military doctrine towards less lethal warfare in combination with information warfare. This is a reorientation of policy, which means that global surveillance for enemies carrying out potential attacks against the US and its allies becomes an obsession. I think we're going to see a witch hunt. We're going to see the information equivalent of the Spanish inquisition where anyone that opposes or questions even this policy will be seen as suitable target for surveillance. I don't think this grants for complacency. We've got to be aware that there's a tremendous infrastructure change and we really do have to start working together as a network because the evidence of these changes will not be visible in one state alone. We have to see how the magnet of the US-influence under George W Bush is going to make all the other iron filings of the peripheral states line up as one because of the tremendous economic power there.
Q: But still we at least have surveillance now on the agenda of the European parliament, which is an advance as you just pointed out. What do you think about the cyber crime convention that is being drafted by the European council?
A: I'm skeptical that such initiatives are anything than pyramid-building but I think that if you look hard enough for enemies you'll find them. There are whole careers that stake here, and new enemies will be identified. Certainly there is cyber crime, there is anti-state activity, there are terrorists, there are money launderers, there are pedophiles, there are people involved in using the networks for illegitimate means. But I question the priorities. I question whether the agenda is fixing on the people that are misusing these networks to the greatest degree. We're not looking at finance by the major institutions, we're not looking at the way that illicit arms dealing is done through the cooption of big business and big banks. I think we need to question how the targets are being chosen and who is involved in that targeting. At the moment that's nowhere. We are given a list of evil-doers and they are shibboleth, they are not open for questions. Anyone who says "Well, hang on, there are bigger issues here." is seen as suspect. I think we've seen what witch-hunts during the cold war lead to: it's a complete skewing legitimacy. This was again demonstrated the United States too during the Gulf war when the US-intelligence and -military agencies were saying that they were coming under attack. It was a big problem and they countered with a number of military attacks. And what in reality was happening was people were searching for news, some people went to places on the net and found they could get through fairly easily to official sites. What was in many cases more or less curiosity was really filed as a terrorist attack.
Q: One thing that strikes me as particularly alarming in that kinds of issues you're investigating is the spread of military paradigms in security. Surveillance, for example targets everybody, so there is the classic military assumption that everybody is a potential enemy. It seems that we are approaching a situation in which everybody who cannot prove to be "innocent" is a suspect by default.
A: Simon Davis has made that point and I think the danger is that the corporation that makes surveillance technology for the civilian- and the police-sector are the same companies making military equipment. There are real dangers here because the hidden implications will only be apparent when we're further down the road of total surveillance. It becomes very difficult then to say: "Well, what did this achieve?". People like Jason Didden in the UK have done comparative studies for the home office on how effective CCTV has been in crime prevention. Their conclusion was extremely marginal. We're seeing initiatives from the US being imported like DNA- or hair-testing. Now hair-testing for LSD drug-use is an insidious development where companies say that they have the right to know about the private lives of all of their workers. Jason's is unique because he said: "With CCTV we've lost it. We can now never withdraw a technology even if it doesn't work." But with hair-testing he said: "Well, hang on, there are corporations here that don't test their technology. They give very precise figures about how much drugs they found down to the nanogramm in a millimeter of hair but when you do the research you find there's no bench-testing, it's completely made up. But no one has stood up and said: "It's bullocks, how dare you make accusations on the base of such bad science." I think that that's the issue: we need to say to these agencies that absorb so much of our tax money. What are they doing with it? Why are they working in this area and not in that area. Why aren't they taking on the racists, the banks or the corporate criminals? Who is setting the priorities? Who decides who is not a target.? Privacy International has released a book on the level of military companies that are now at the surveillance wing. And what we're seeing is a shift towards miniaturization of the police and a new role for the police in an internal war. I regard that as extremely worrying because the accountability changes in domestic policing are quite clear cut - everything has to be lawful, it's got to be precise, it's got to be discriminate, it's got to be standard in court. Whereas with the military friendly fire, bombing your allies, making mistakes is seen as legitimate if the greater goal is achieved. It's indiscriminate and anti-democratic.
Q: How do you assess the chances of research and development in these high-tech fields becoming more transparent? What appears to be the case is that a society is always faced with technologies that are already ready to use. We're not involved in setting the priorities of which direction R+D takes in the first place.
A: Way back the Office of Technology Assessment was set up in the States to help decision makers anticipate the negative sides of technology. It was abolished under one of the previous administrations, an act of great folly. The European Union has set up such a system too but at the moment it's very underfunded: the Science and Technology Options Assessment Panel (STOA). What we've said in our recent report on crowd control technology - which include surveillance - is that the issue is too serious not to have social impact assessments of each new technology because we can't afford to take the commercial nonsense without question. I think there has to be some human impact assessment to say: "Prove it. We put the honors on you as manufacturer to show that this actually gives the results that you say it does." Likewise with the big systems, they are so centralized and unaccountable but there's an arrogance there. We saw it with the British Empire where during the American war of independence America said for commercial reasons: "We are going to leave you. We don't want have anything to with the British Empire. We think that you've gone arrogant and that you're imperialist and we don't want to be one of your colonies". Now we've got with information warfare the exact symmetry: America is acting like Britain did in colonial times saying it has the right to take economic intelligence for its own benefit and hang the rest. We, the anti-surveillance committee, think that is very unhealthy now. It needs to be arrested and charged. We're seeing the start of that process and I'm not optimistic in the short-term. But I think in the long-term this has to be successful and by raising the issue and getting publicity, which is exactly what we can do at an even like the World Information Forum
Q: You pointed out again today the effectiveness of this sort of humorist resistance against institutions, data-capturing, etc. You said that "they can take arguments but they cannot take humor."
A: Humor is very subversive everywhere. People hate being laughed at because it spreads. I've seen as you must have seen the e-mail that's gone around the web after the fiasco of the recent US presidential elections saying: "Britain has just receded from independence and we're now taking America back as one of our sovereign states. You're now answerable to Tony Blair and don't have any elections because you're a colony". That would generate so much reaction because the there was a lack of sense of irony and a sense of humor. We can see the paradox. I think in this area it's punchy. It's almost like a photograph saying: "We see through the emperor's cloths. We see what you're doing". And it spreads and it's an unexploded dimension. I mean here in Austria we're talking about regular demonstrations are going on and about the impossibility of being everywhere whereas humor can be. I remember when the Shah fell he had cameras in every square in Teheran. And people said: "Well, you want to watch us? Watch this! We think it's funny to see your face go up in flames". And they burned an image of the shah in front of every camera. And all he got to see was his own picture burning. There are many other examples of good humor being used to challenge and to take on the state in a harmless way. And I think that that will spread, it's part of the package. It's undermining that kind of "We're untouchable".