Always watching, always profiting: Fighting digital repression

Jun 11, 2019

Photo by: Paweł Zdziarski, Wikicommons

While the lifeblood of capitalism—the pursuit of profit—remains the same, the specific ways capitalist’s pursue profit and protect their rule are constantly changing. Marx and Engels identified this trend in their 1848 Communist Manifesto, writing that “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.” Over the last few years, revelations from whistleblowers, activists, and investigative journalists have exposed some of these recent transformations as they relate to digital technologies, data, and surveillance. As Marxists, it’s important that we recognize the class politics of these transformations and of the scandals that exposed them.

Digital technologies represent a qualitative transformation within capitalism. The quantity of workers in the U.S. who are employed in digital industries proper is relatively miniscule, but all industries—from agriculture to service—have been digitized in one way or another. In many ways these technologies facilitated the outsourcing of industrial production from the “core” economies to the “periphery,” and the parceling up of industrial production (where different parts of the same commodity are produced in different and even distant factories). Outside of the workplace, digital technologies have reconfigured social relationships and interactions. To put it back into the framework of the Communist Manifesto, digital technologies are instruments of production that revolutionized the relations of production and society.

They’ve also facilitated the commodification of almost every aspect of our lives, from our interests, locations, and activities to our relationships, health concerns, and political beliefs. As this data is collected and analyzed often without our consent—and almost always without our full knowledge—it becomes the source of corporate profit, undermines privacy, and intensifies the repressive apparatus known as the state.

Data and democracy

The world awoke to shocking news on March 17, 2018 when The New York Times released a lengthy report on the relationship between the Trump administration and a largely-unknown agency called Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, Strategic Communications Laboratories Group, targeted their products at big businesses like MasterCard and the New York Yankees as well as political campaigns including the Brexit campaign and the 2016 Presidential campaigns of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Cambridge Analytica offered what many companies claim to offer in the digital age: Insights and planning tools to target people–who they label as “consumers” or “voters,” depending on the situation. Many of these other services track statistics on advertisements on services like Facebook and Google, or on the client’s websites. They tap into advertising networks to track users as they browse between various websites. (This is why, for example, after looking at vacuum cleaners on Amazon, you might see advertisements on vacuum cleaners on other websites you visit). Others also perform sentiment analysis: monitoring and parsing the content of posts and comments on social media sites with advanced algorithms to approximate how an individual feels about a product or politician.

There are a few different components to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. First, the company acquired information on 50 million Facebook users via an independent researcher, Aleksandr Kogan. Kogan was part of a research group at Cambridge University (unrelated to Cambridge Analytica) that ran a personality survey on Facebook for research purposes. From his experience in this project, Kogan then built his own, similar app. Both applications took advantage of Facebook’s developer platform to gather user data, including public and private profile information like relationship status, location, and pages “liked.” Further, the applications went through the friend networks of each user, pulling the same profile information from the user’s friends without their knowledge or consent. As a result, even though only 270,000 Facebook users installed Kogan’s application, it got detailed profile information about 50 million users. Kogan then sold this information to Cambridge Analytica for approximately $800,000.

Facebook consented to this data collection. In fact, their public interfaces for developers allowed this type of information gathering. In other words, Facebook did not need to be hacked for this information to get into someone else’s hands, as anyone with a little coding knowledge could access it. Facebook immediately denied responsibility, citing its own rules that transferring the information was against its Terms of Service. This denial was merely a misdirection, because the information wasn’t transferred by Facebook, but rather sourced from Facebook.

The second part of the scandal was what propelled it to the national spotlight: The Trump 2016 campaign was a client of Cambridge Analytica. Trump advisor Stephen Bannon backed the firm and was a VP of its Board of Directors. While The New York Times feigned shock and outrage at the scandal, the reality is that this kind of data collection, mining, and sale for electoral purposes is thoroughly bipartisan. Just after the 2008 election the newspaper lauded the Obama campaign’s use of social media as innovative, noting “Mr. Obama will have not just a political base, but a database, millions of names of supporters who can be engaged almost instantly.” In 2012, Buzzfeed News posted an interview with Obama’s 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina, celebrating the way the campaign collected and used data: ‘Every night, Obama’s analytics team would run the campaign 66,000 times on a computer simulation. “And every morning,” said Messina, “we would come in and spend our money based on those simulations.” “We were going to demand data on everything, we were going to measure everything,” he added.

While somewhat outside the scope of this article, it’s worth mentioning an even more troubling occurrence: tech companies directly utilize their monopoly positions to intervene in and influence electoral campaigns. Robert Epstein and his research team at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology have conducted several studies demonstrating the Search Engine Manipulation Effect and the Search Suggestion Effect (among others). These refer, respectively, to the ability of search engines to rank search results and to alter or prioritize autocomplete suggestions in order to influence political opinions and elections. When Epstein (who publicly supported Clinton) and his team analyzed Google search results during the 2016 election, they found “that between May and November 2016, search results displayed in response to a wide range of election-related search terms were, on average, biased in Mrs. Clinton’s favor in all 10 search-result positions.”

Political campaigns and corporations gathering data on voters and consumers isn’t new, and neither is monopoly corporate “election interference.” What is new is the depth, extent, and mass of the data, the mechanisms and agents by which its gathered, the clandestine nature of the collection, and the overall role it plays. It shows the fundamentally capitalist nature of elections in the United States, where big business strategies are grafted onto the “democratic process,” and the election is approached as a battle between two billionaire advertising agencies and their billionaire corporate supporters.

The surveillance state

Former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden has given us tremendous insight into the reach and capabilities of the national surveillance state. Among the revelations of the Snowden files were the extent of the NSA’s global spying program and its relationships with foreign intelligence services including the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters, the Australian Signals Directorate, the Netherlands’ General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD), and Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND).

These wide-ranging NSA spy programs were not new to many in the security and intelligence communities. Though it wasn’t confirmed for decades after its start in the 1960s, the existence of the ECHELON program had been a sort of open secret for decades. ECHELON was a partnership with the so-called “Five Eyes” countries (US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia) initially created during the Cold War to monitor communications within, to, and from the Soviet Union and socialist Eastern Bloc countries through a global network of ground-based satellite intercept stations. Rather than shut down with the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, ECHELON actually increased the scale of its global operations.

The idea of the Five Eyes program under the post-WWII Atlantic Agreement was a partnership with open intelligence sharing between the governments involved. However, inter-capitalist competition had an impact on how the U.S. government used the program’s powers. As the Snowden files revealed, the U.S. government engaged in spying against the United Nations General Assembly, Brazilian petroleum company Petrobras, Qatari news network Al Jazeera, Russian airline Aeroflot, and even individuals like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Princess Diana. And as Russia began recovering from the devastation ushered in by the transition to capitalism, the NSA expanded its operations to European allies that Russia could potentially court.

Privatizing the surveillance state

The state isn’t an entity that sits outside of or above the economy, but is rather a tool wielded by one class to protect its own interests. Over the last 40 or so years, however, the merging of the state and capital has only intensified. The most infamous part of the Snowden files is the PRISM program, a partnership between the NSA and some of the largest Internet companies, including Facebook, Google, Hotmail, Apple, PalTalk, Yahoo, Skype, AOL and Microsoft. These companies provide the NSA with access to email, voice and video chat, videos, photos, stored data (like Google Docs), times and locations of logins, “online social networking details”–including all of a person’s activity on a service–and an ominously-named category, “Special Requests.”

The unimaginable quantity of data available under the PRISM program and others are accessible by an internal NSA tool called XKEYSCORE, which provides a simple interface for querying the databases. By simply entering a target person’s account and “realm” (online service), NSA analysts could see nearly every aspect of that person’s online existence. In an interview with German network Norddeutscher Rundfunk, Snowden said of the program:

You could read anyone’s email in the world, anybody you’ve got an email address for. Any website: You can watch traffic to and from it. Any computer that an individual sits at: You can watch it. Any laptop that you’re tracking: you can follow it as it moves from place to place throughout the world. It’s a one-stop-shop for access to the NSA’s information.

Internal NSA documents released by Snowden show that the PRISM program cost approximately $20 million in 2013 alone. While the agency’s budget itself remains classified, in 2013 it was estimated to have a $10 billion share of the approximately $53 billion “black budget” for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), National Geospatial-Intelligence Program’s (NGP), and a handful of other secretive government intelligence agencies focusing on data collection, analysis, processing, and exploitation. As such, the $20 million annual cost of PRISM is a drop in the bucket.

How could the PRISM program cost so little? Thanks to the partnerships with the private companies involved, most of the cost is transferred away from the NSA itself. The agency does not need to store the raw data and avoids all of the costs associated with that: physical buildings with computer servers and gigantic storage arrays, technicians for that equipment, and so on.

This was an advancement of previous public/private partnerships between the surveillance state and telecommunications companies. In 1985, the NSA and AT&T launched a joint project called FAIRVIEW, under which AT&T provided the NSA with direct access to telephone and later Internet traffic (including emails) at facilities in 8 American cities: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC. These cities are major exchange and peering locations for telecommunications and Internet traffic. Underwater cables converge at centralized locations for data from overseas, and cables from domestic networks also convene to send traffic to other networks in these locations. Effectively, the buildings in these cities are the most efficient places to tap into Internet traffic. Under FAIRVIEW, the NSA operated its own data storage operations, which cost the agency $189 million in 2011.

A similar program named STORMBREW involves a partnership with Verizon. While still a major telecommunications provider, Verizon is smaller than AT&T and in the same year STORMBREW cost the agency half of what FAIRVIEW cost.

Activists targeted by the state

When I give technology and security trainings, I begin with a reading of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

As with all rights,  the capitalist system will outright ignore or attempt to roll them back when it’s deemed convenient or necessary to defend the existing world order and drive for profit. When Congress questioned NSA Director Michael Hayden about its spying programs, Hayden made a number of claims to defend the agency. First, he claimed that the NSA is legally allowed to intercept foreign communications and it did not violate existing law against the agency spying on U.S. citizens. The reality of the way the Internet and global communications works makes this extremely difficult, if not impossible: messages in an email or instant message conversation between two people who are even physically in the same town could bounce between servers across the world to reach its destination. If the data packets leave and enter the U.S. again, they could be considered foreign traffic and intercepted. Hayden claimed that any information about U.S. citizens gathered under the NSA’s massive signal intelligence intercept operations was unintentional. This was an outright lie and ignored the PRISM partnerships.

Domestic spying by intelligence and law enforcement agencies is not new. The FBI, CIA, Department of Homeland Security, and other federal, state, and local agencies have regularly spied on progressive and revolutionary movements in the United States in order to gain intelligence on their activities, disrupt their work, and ultimately destroy their movements.

The Internet and social media have opened up countless new channels of communication for activists and organizers: Planning a protest can happen instantly via text message; a Facebook event can be shared to thousands of people in seconds; a live video of protest actions or of police brutality can spread across the world as they unfold. While workers around the world are watching, gathering, and being inspired or outraged by all of this, it’s critical for organizers to recognize that the national security state is also watching and actively using this information against our movements (for more on this, see this Liberation School article on democratic centralism and social media).

The security state is not just a passive collector and listener. In 2017, Wikileaks released Vault 7, a treasure trove of leaked CIA technologies, including tools that the CIA had developed and used to attack and hijack numerous types of devices in common use: computers, Apple and Android phones, car computer and navigation systems, “smart” TVs with cameras and microphones, and more. The tools allowed agents to take over the computer system in a car or enable the microphone in a phone without the user’s knowledge.

Traditionally, security researchers will make good-faith attempts to communicate with a technology company if they find a vulnerability in their product. Standard procedure for the reasonable disclosure process is to give the company 90 days to fix the issue and release a software update before the researcher publishes any information. Some companies even have bug bounty programs that pay researchers for pointing out these flaws in a responsible way.

On the other hand, when the CIA or NSA discover vulnerabilities, they keep it a closely-guarded secret because they can use this knowledge to attack their targets. This sacrifices the security of everyone who uses the targeted device. Even if an individual wouldn’t be a target of a CIA campaign, there’s always the possibility that other malicious actors could find and exploit the same issues for private profit or just to cause mayhem.

While vendors have addressed the majority of security vulnerabilities exposed by Vault 7, intelligence agencies are always actively looking for new ways to exploit systems. Without whistleblowers, we do not know what their current technologies and tactics are.

Data collection by private companies creates other security and legal concerns. The Fourth Amendment applies to the government, not to private entities. Social media services and online platforms like Google, Facebook, and Amazon are not service providers. They are either entirely or primarily data collection companies that use social networks, online shops, or free email and document storage to gather and then sell user data. In other words, Amazon is arguably less interested in the purchase you make and more interested in the clicks you made along the way.

Even if you’re not logged in to Google or Facebook, and even if you don’t have an account on those services, they can track your movement across the Internet. They create shadow profiles that, even if they don’t have your name attached to them, can contain enough personalized information to identify you. As a very simplified example: if you search for a place on your computer on Google, then use Google Maps on your phone to find directions to that location soon after, that can be a signal to Google that those two devices are related to the same profile. When combined with other data signals, the information can be related to a specific identity.

Protecting ourselves

The surveillance state, like the rest of the state apparatus, is highly centralized and efficient when it comes to protecting itself and the rights of capitalists against popular movements. Activists and organizers must be similarly conscious of the capacity of our enemies. While a full review of how, when and why to use certain software and techniques to protect yourself is an article of its own, we want to provide a few tips:

Install and use the Firefox web browser on your computer and phone. For general web browsing, Firefox provides a good amount of security against tracking.

  • On a computer, install the following add-ons for Firefox: uBlock Origin, HTTPS Everywhere, Decentraleyes and Facebook Containers.
  • For sensitive meetings and conversations, put your phones and computers in another room out of reach of your voice. Or just leave your phone at home.
  • Consider anything that you post on the Internet to be public, even if you have your profile locked down.
  • Instead of using text messaging, Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, install the secure and encrypted Signal application on your phone for text message conversations, and get everyone you know to install and use it as well.

These are just a few basic steps that any privacy- or security-minded people can take to protect themselves. At the same time, however, it’s clear that the corporate-state data and surveillance complex can’t be fought by individual actions. To do that we need an informed, sustained, and organize people’s movement.

A socialist future for data

Capitalism is a system of contradictions, and part of socialist agitation is understanding and seizing on those contradictions. One of the most fundamental contradictions at work in data and surveillance is that between social production and private ownership.

Everything is produced socially through extensive networks of cooperation that often traverse the entire globe. Yet under capitalism, these products are appropriated and owned by private individuals and corporations. Why should corporations get to own—let alone sell and profit from—our data? Why shouldn’t we as a society determine what data gets collected and how it gets used?

Like all technologies, the products of rapid advances in the fields of data collection and analysis are neutral. It is the way in which technology is used that determines their social, political and economic impacts. While shows like Black Mirror paint a dystopian picture of the future under surveillance capitalism with omnipresent cameras and social credit scores, a socialist system could build on these technological developments to serve the people, not private profit.

Under a socialized,centralized, and planned economy, we could harness the power of in-depth and immediate analysis to organize production and increase and improve the distribution of services and goods. A rise in a certain family of health issues in a region could lead to deployment of more health workers with a specialty in that area. Increased purchases of a certain product could trigger more production of that product to meet needs. And this could be done while respecting privacy, with aggregated data that respects and does not identify individual people.

Some have proposed that “breaking up” the tech companies can mitigate against some of the dangers described in this article. Monopoly, however, is a natural tendency under capitalism, and so once broken up they will cobble themselves back together again. After all, there’s nothing generally wrong with one entity dominating an industry, and in many cases it’s preferable. The greater the information stored in one database, for example, the more comprehensive a search will be. The problem is when the monopoly is privately owned and run. It makes more sense to expropriate these companies and place them under a system of democratic collective ownership and planning.

A socialist future –one focused on improving, not monetizing our very existence–can and will use technology for the benefit of all. To win this future, we need to fight for the socialist expropriation of technology corporations, an end to the surveillance state, and true people’s control over technology and data.

About the author: Chris Garaffa is founder of Tech for the People, whose website has more useful articles for activists and organizers.

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