Category Archives: Society

Rise of the Internet Police State

This article of mine was originally published in Adbusters May-June 2007. Since it has inspired a number of copies, commentaries and videos by others, and continues to be extremely relevant, I’d like to ensure the original remains available on the internet. Rob Wipond.

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It started out as just an ordinary article tracking Google’s tracking of us. It’s become something much more unsettling.

I was reading Google’s privacy policy to find out what they were doing with the list of everything I’ve ever searched for, my Gmail email content they were analyzing, my documents stored using Google Apps, and the detailed picture of my website they’ve been developing since I started running Google targeted ads. Not to mention all that information they can gather about my activities as I visit any site running Google ads.

But Google’s dozen interconnected privacy policies were mainly suggestively vague. “We may combine personal information collected from you with information from other Google services or third parties…We may also use personal information for auditing, research and analysis… ” Google reps publicly claimed they weren’t developing a multi-layered personal profile of me for the CIA, yet they seemingly wouldn’t rule out doing it, either.

That’s why I’ve actually been writing with a rhetorical “me”-After talking to some experts, the real me has been avoiding Google services.

Lawyer Philippa Lawson, executive director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, warned that even if Google isn’t yet compiling in-depth personal profiles and re-selling them to virtually any buyer, plenty of others already are.

CIPPIC recently researched gathering and brokering of personal data. They found most privacy policies are “not explained thoroughly or clearly”, states Lawson, because “there’s a huge market incentive for companies to violate the privacy of individuals. Our personal information is now a commodity in the marketplace. And a very valuable one.”

Accumulating, analyzing, co-operatively sharing, buying and selling personal information about us, primarily with the intention of helping companies develop targeted marketing campaigns, has become a multi-billion dollar industry. According to Lawson, apart from spyware, common methods for gathering data about us include free versions of programs, online email services and stores, networking sites and Digital Rights Management tools.

“Quite often, if you go in and actually read what you’re clicking ‘I agree’ to, it says ‘I agree to let you track my activities online and use that information for whatever you want.’ ”

Even though some countries, like Canada, have better privacy protection legislation than the “freewheeling” U.S., Lawson says that’s little comfort. “There’s basically widespread non-compliance” with the laws, she states, plus little enforcement.

Yet even more concerning than the immense amount of data about you that these companies are collecting and trading, says American Civil Liberties Union technology expert Jay Stanley, is the way governments are becoming involved and getting companies to help.

“We’re actually weakening the laws that restrain the government from exploiting these new technologies to peer into our lives,” says Stanley, author of “The Surveillance-Industrial Complex”.

In the U.S., all new communications technologies must include back doors for government eavesdropping. With no judicial oversight, the FBI issues tens of thousands of demands annually to internet service providers, libraries and others to hand over their records-and under the Patriot Act it’s illegal to tell anyone it has occurred. Numerous democratic countries now require companies to retain all user data for years, for just such occasions, essentially allowing governments to circumvent their own privacy legislation. For example, while it can’t legally conduct mass surveillance itself, Canada’s RCMP recently simply obtained records on millions of Canadians from private data broker Cornerstone. ChoicePoint gathers and sells personal information under contract to dozens of U.S. government agencies.

Many other companies share their information on us voluntarily, often in exchange for access to government information. The FBI claims “InfraGard” has 18,403 enlisted members, including 83 of the top 100 Fortune 500 companies, working on its secretive “information sharing and analysis” project. Similarly, the National Security Agency is funding private sector studies of harvesting data from social networking sites like MySpace, and whistleblowers claim AT&T has allowed the NSA full access to customers’ phone calls and to all internet traffic passing through its broad internet hubs. Then there’s the now infamous (but still mysterious) ECHELON, an intergovernmental and inter-corporate system for intercepting global communications en masse.

If we add in other available information like census data, education, criminal and health records, video rentals, completed warranty cards and surveys, and periodical subscription lists, and then combine all of that with data being obtained through increasing use of surveillance audio-visual cameras, radio frequency identifier tags in ID cards, cell phones and ordinary goods, implanted chips and biometric scanners, then the picture created, says Stanley, is ultimately of an “inexorable movement toward a surveillance society”.

So we’re missing the forest for the trees, he argues, by debating the risks and benefits of these activities one at a time. “Technologies are making possible the kind of all-inclusive surveillance that’s never before been possible in history.”

For Stanley, the worst aspect is that this menacing surveillance state is taking shape largely shadowed from the eyes of open public debate, in a world of “meta-secrecy” or “secrecy about secrecy”, under the pretense of national security. And while many people support preventing crime and terrorism, identifying criminals and terrorists before they commit crimes requires broad surveillance and scientifically suspect analysis of a hypothetically infinite spectrum of personalities and behaviours. As one U.S. police anti-terrorism brochure recently clarified, it means keeping close tabs on “anyone who does not appear to belong”. And who appears to belong less than someone protesting this sinister status quo?

“We can look to history to see the kinds of abuses that take place,” comments Stanley. “Surveillance technologies and infrastructures are used politically to target, harrass and disrupt people who are agitating for change.” He cites a case where a Soviet democracy activist’s life fell apart after authorities simply released unexpurgated details of the worst things he’d ever said to others about any of his friends or associates.

But Lawson feels the image of one giant, ominous “Big Brother” is more reassuring, and less real, than what we’re actually developing, which is more “Kafka-esque”: innumerable people with power over your life holding reams of information on you that you don’t know about and can’t control. That’s why we’re already seeing an outrageous range of results: expanding no-fly lists, increasing identity thefts, broadening state-corporate agreements to “disappear” certain websites, and growing industry-wide databases like Australia’s “Guests Behaving Badly”, which blacklists hotel guests who are “intimidatory” or “anti-social”.

Ironically, the internet once promised a veritable democratic revolution of wide open communication. If current trends continue, we could well end up paranoid and close mouthed, afraid that everything we do will be recorded, forever available for use against us at at any time, in any way.

“That’s the great danger,” agrees Stanley. “The chilling effect that undermines and undercuts the great democratic communicative advantage that the internet brings.” Nevertheless, he adds, “I think there are also reasons to hope. People are beginning to realize that these wonderful technologies also have dark sides.”

Still, if there were a fascist coup tomorrow, it looks like this new internet would be vastly more useful to the forces of state control than to those of democracy and liberty.

“I don’t spend my time worrying about a fascist government coming to power,” counters Stanley. After all, he says, we’ve got plenty of room to become “a meaner and less just and harsher society, without any kind of radical takeover… And that’s what I’m most afraid of.”

Bumpkins Dismiss Conspiracy Theories

Beware the spoon-feeders of anti-conspiracy pap. You know who I mean. Like several local Victoria writers who suggested that if you suspect corporations may influence U.S. policy in Iraq, Princess Diana’s accident was not accidental, or certain leaders may have been complicit in 9/11, then you “forgot [your] medication” and evidently need far-fetched conspiracy theories as “comfort food” to help you “cope”.

Anti-conspiracists relentlessly attack conspiracy theories, yet their reasonings often have nothing to do with facts or proof. In their minds, for example, the suggestion that companies, regulators, doctors, scientists and thousands of victims have been involved in a global cover-up of a drug’s dangerous side effects is so improbable it not only doesn’t merit serious investigation, it’s laughable.

And that’s dangerous.

Continue reading “Bumpkins Dismiss Conspiracy Theories” »

Is the Rule of Law Even Necessary?

I’ve seen two types of judges while covering courts. Which one bore judgment on the recent teachers’ strike?

One judge checks her ego outside the courtroom. She puts all her energy into absorbing affidavits, thoughtfully probing lawyers and clients, meticulously weighing evidence, and rendering judgments sensitively and creatively. If challenged in her authority, she politely explains she’s only trying to help resolve the conflict.

An experienced judge of this type is impressive to witness.

The other judge’s robes are puffed up with self-importance, and his overpowering sense of moral rectitude make him curt and dismissive of complex arguments. He shows disdain for anything particularly time-consuming, and delivers decisions packaged inside paternalistic lectures and salted with insults. If challenged, he menacingly warns about maintaining “respect for the court”.

During the strike, I for one saw too much of that second judge.

Though the government had simply invented a law declaring the teachers’ strike illegal, for example, many people instantly launched into insulting tirades. The next day “respect for the law” became the dominant public refrain, as if the huffy phrase had some universally-trumping moral rank, like a meta-political gavel hammering the final sentence.

“The law is the very foundation of a civil society,” our Premier proclaimed.

“The very day the union respects the court and returns to work, we will sit down and talk,” insisted Labour Minister Mike de Jong. Ad nauseam.

A lawyer’s op-ed, even while criticizing government, stated “rule of law is critical to a democratic society; without law, there would be anarchy.”

One letter-writer among many affirmed “respect for the law as the fundamental principle of democracy”.

And the presiding judge, stripping the now “outlaw” teachers of many of their basic rights to control their own money or even communicate with each other, parroted this view: “Each and every one of us derives the security and freedom which we enjoy in this country from the rule of law.”

This is all ridiculous.

Respect for the law might be considered the foundation for good downtown traffic management. At a stretch. (Though even that’s debatable, according to Dutch experiments removing traffic lights.) But the foundation of civilized society? The basis for all our security and freedom? The only thing standing between us and widespread random pillaging and plundering?

Let’s get something straight. Do you refrain from murdering your neighbour and stealing his lawnmower merely because you respect the law?

Do you refrain from driving 180 km/hr downtown mainly because you respect the law?

Do you follow through on your commitments only because someone might sue?

Or just maybe, do you do these things because you have a few grains of compassion, decency, responsibility and good sense?

After all, if merely 10% of us decide tomorrow we’ll drive at 180 km/hr, or plunder and pillage, the legal system will be helpless. That’s tens of thousands of people rampaging through the south island’s streets alone. There aren’t enough police, judges or jails to slow that trainwreck.

What’s my point? The foundation of civilized society is not respect for the law. It’s mass action: large numbers of people agreeing on basic behaviours that seem sensible, and voluntarily abiding by them. Without THAT, there’s bedlam. Laws are technical add-ons.

In fact, far from being immutable democratic pillars, our fundamental laws are riddled with flimsily-defined terms like “reasonable” and “fair”, and most others tend to be transitory, malleable documents controlled by a tiny cabal whose moral authority arises from winning some feeble percentage of votes once. Few of us completely trust such people to manage our tax dollars, let alone our lives or the foundations of society.

Which is why, even more than laws or elections, mass protest and defiance have always been vital to democracy. Consider women’s suffrage, black civil rights movements, or local Aboriginal struggles for basic freedoms. Without mass action, what meaningful power do ordinary citizens have to temper government cabals? One vote every four years is not a powerful tool. Modern fascists like Iran’s Khamenei have learned elections can be allowed and rendered inconsequential, so long as key media, unions, and mass actions aimed at educating and empowering citizens or disrupting authority are illegalized.

Some bristle at such comparisons. BC isn’t Iran! These teachers aren’t Ghandi, Martin Luther King or Polish Solidarnosc!

Maybe so. But Campbell has effectively illegalized mass actions in numerous public and private sectors, including forestry, transportation, education, health care, and even law. What if an NDP government declared it illegal for the Chamber of Commerce to incite business protests against “essential” tax increases?

Still, many have an over-riding conceit that makes them believe they can always distinguish just protests from unreasonable ones. Are we really so much wiser than our parents, many of whom failed to recognize even King’s honorableness?

We also frequently fail to appreciate the difficulty of rallying people. I’ve tried—even ten’s a task! If 38,000 forego paycheques for chilly rains and public humiliations, chances are they’ve got good reasons. Mass protests are valuable social barometers.

In this case, it demonstrates how difficult teaching has become, and how dire the circumstances for our children must be. It tells us we have to pay attention and find solutions. An entire generation of children needs us.

That’s why I’ve started to wonder if the next Martin Luther King is indeed among us.

Maybe she’s a child suffering in school.

Let’s hope she soon gets a better judge.

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Originally published in Focus, December 2005.

 

 

 

The Real Lesson of a Teen’s Death

What killed 13-year-old Mercedes-Rae Clarke after she ingested an unknown drug she bought on the street? We won’t know until the coroner’s investigation concludes-if ever. But the day after her death in September, that didn’t stop our regional chief medical officer Dr. Richard Stanwick, Victoria police inspector Clarke Russell, and even coroner Lisa Lapointe from telling us all, anyway.They suspiciously fingered a spiked or ineptly-concocted amphetamine.

While speaking for Clarke’s family, Stanwick suggested to the Victoria T imes-Colonist that “she got some really bad stuff.”

“[Y]ou want every child to hear about it and hopefully learn about it,” added Lapointe. “Teenagers are so naïve.”

Russell attacked: “They’re handling drugs that are extremely volatile and made with crap. When you take somebody’s life, your life should be taken.”

Basically, our authorities used the tragedy to sermonize wrathfully against seedy dealers of makeshift drugs.

It was an odd conclusion to reach, however; especially considering no one else reportedly even got sick from that mystery batch.

Continue reading “The Real Lesson of a Teen’s Death” »

When Our Politicians Disdain Us

I felt like Winston Smith when I found what I was seeking in the newspaper archives. I hung on like to a ring buoy holding me above a tidal wave of lies. And I swore that this election, I would support truth.

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Smith unearths a tattered article that survived the mass destruction of historical records. It confirms his memory is correct and the all-powerful governing Party is lying. It gives him back sanity, and strength.

Thankfully, Winston’s world is imaginary. Nevertheless, I’m still holding on to what I uncovered.

Last election, Gordon Campbell and numerous Liberal ministers-in-waiting really did unequivocally and repeatedly state there was absolutely no chance they’d sell BC Hydro or BC Rail, reduce healthcare funding, or bring in major public service cuts. Significant promises, which arguably tipped the election 10% from squeaker to landslide.

If I was a Liberal MLA, I’d feel embarrassed. Humiliated. I’d have resigned my riding long ago, showering in apologies. Wouldn’t you?

But broken promises and outright lying have become common features of modern governments. Many politicians act like the general public is merely a voting lapdog who needs to be tossed a pretty-coloured, fake bone every four years. Almost regardless of political persuasion, our governments are becoming increasingly disdainful towards us. Daily, they’ll dupe the media, reject public input, ignore experts, deny obvious truths, circumvent laws, and concentrate power in their own hands. Overall, they’re becoming more fascistic. And we keep eating it up.

This isn’t Nazi Germany, Zimbabwe or even Guántanamo Bay, but those are extremes. Essentially, authoritarianism is heightened centralization of government power, and BC has markedly moved in that direction this decade.

Consider the current government. The BC Liberals delivered crippling cuts to public services and social security, re-wrote fundamental laws from child labour to elder care, privatized countless assets, erased union contracts, dismantled regional health bodies, let tuitions skyrocket, lowered the minimum wage, expunged the Forest Practices Code, undermined legal aid, and caused many courts, schools, parks, and shelter and hospital beds to close around the province, all while extensively restructuring every ministry. It was as if their project were “Operation Shock and Awe Everybody Into Submission”. Environmental protection deregulation? “Many [bills] were passed in a matter of days with no consultation and very little legislative debate,” wrote West Coast Environmental Law. BC Hydro sell-off? Legislation was “rammed” through in a week “with absolutely no public consultation,” stated BC Citizens for Public Power. Closures and privatizations in parks? The government was “refusing to conduct broad public consultation” protested Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. Labour Code and Employment Standards re-writes? “This one-month timeline suggests that the Government is not interested in real dialogue,” argued the BC Teachers’ Federation. Even two Liberal MLAs publicly complained about being steamrolled!

This government has also exhibited a characteristically tyrannical approach to law: Create ways to rule above the law. The Liberals’ Delivery Improvement Act, for instance, allows them to ignore many legal contracts. Their Significant Projects Streamlining Act allows ministers to overrule virtually any laws constraining “significant” developments.

Notably, many MLAs publicly denied the Streamlining Act allows ministers to ignore parks boundaries, bypass municipal land use regulations, or legalize illegal effluents, but the Act transparently contradicts them. Dictatorial decision-makers are typically immune in this way to rational argument or even self-evident truth. Organizations representing hundreds of scientists publicly protested their ignoring scientific facts in numerous decisions, e.g. government-appointed fish farming experts made recommendations, and the government largely did the opposite. The Liberals deny they’re selling BC Hydro or expanding gambling, even as they’re doing both.  Privately, I asked my MLA why they’d instituted certain heartrending cutbacks. He pleaded that they simply didn’t have enough money. Then why give billions in tax breaks to the wealthiest 20%? He explained that this was an investment. Witness his mind’s version of logical math: Giving money to the rich stimulates the economy, but giving money to the poor is a devastating cost drain.

Worse, modern authoritarians are learning ways to ensure their dubious achievements outlive petty elections. Our Liberal government, for example, proudly claims they abolished over 173,000 “burdensome” regulations in health, safety, building standards and other fields. Some were undoubtedly out-of-date. But while deleting hundreds of pieces of legislation per day, how much thoughtful weighing of the public interest could have been going on? And the years of stakeholder consultations that went into creating many of those will never be gotten back. Just like we’ll probably never get back BC Rail, BC Ferries, MSP administration or any other privatized assets, all of which are now ticking time bombs, soon to ignite cost explosions beneath our feet.

This isn’t partisan; the Liberals’ term has been unprecedented in degree but not nature. Such authoritarianism has developed under the NDP, Social Credit and governments around North America. So why are we voting for these people? Even if we like some of their aims, how can we support disdain for the public, and for truth? Wouldn’t any candidates genuinely willing to discuss issues be better?

Winston Smith’s world was too dangerous for him to speak out. If this were truly a wholly fascist state, probably we couldn’t publicly criticize like this. But if BC were truly democratic, neither would our government be able to simply ignore widespread public criticisms.

Either way, we know Winston would cherish our opportunity to support truth at the ballot box.

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Originally published in Focus, April 2005.