Technical agitation

It’s been a while now since I’ve heard or read anything interesting or original on efforts to counter, um, over-reach on the part of the NSA, GCHQ, et al. The common pundit meme on the market is that there is no technical solution, only a policy, or political one. While I applaud the many earnest online petitions and poignant debating points made by various minority party leaders out there, let me just ask: what the hell have you been paying attention to these last decades? A policy solution? Really? Drafted by whom? Voted into law by whom? Enforced by whom? Check and balanced by… you get where this is going. Before descending into a bout of solutionism, let’s look at the problems of policy.

Problem the first: The majority of incumbent policy makers have a defacto bias against weakening government surveillance. It doesn’t work in their favour. Replace them? Ha. Obama the candidate had all sorts of ethical issues about government spying that evaporated once he became Obama the president. Candidates earn their living by rhetorically challenging issues that suddenly become more complex when they actually wield power.

Problem the second: When we’re talking about a policy or political solution, what we’re actually referring to is a legal solution. Or, in other words: ‘There ought to be a law.’ There are a couple of issues with this. The first is this: Laws are themselves technical solutions, and ones fraught with problems. In both network security and safe locks there’s a common truism: You can only create a thing that you can’t break into yourself. A more clever hacker or locksmith will come along and show you what you missed. Lawyers are the technicians in any political solution. What they specialise in are technical challenges. Any law can become circumventable, with the right legal team.

encrypt all the thingsProblem the third: Laws and oversight are laughed at by the agencies we’re talking about. They break them with complete impunity all the time. Copy-and-pasting TechDirt: “NSA analysts have abused their power. Multiple times. The agency has illegally spied on journalists, broken wiretapping laws, viewed President Clinton’s emails and recorded calls from American soldiers back to America, passing around tapes of ones containing ‘phone sex’ or ‘pillow talk.’ That’s just a few instances that we KNOW about.” And they get away with it.

Problem the fourth: If you look at any of the literature made by the companies that peddle spy software to government, one stunning similarity jumps out: It’s all incredibly simplistic and designed for people who don’t understand what they’re looking at. Our elected officials, their appointed advisers and even the people who vote them into office, are amazingly ignorant about both the legal issues involved and the technology used in online surveillance.  When asked about the potential for the NSA to abuse its power, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair, Senator Dianne Feinstein had this to say: “I am not a high-tech techie, but I have been told that is not possible.” Rest easy, public.

Problem the fifth: Intelligence agencies don’t seem to know how it works, either. The NSA’s use of MUSCULAR generated so much junk that analysts told them to start collecting less. If what you’re looking to do is find proverbial needles in hay stacks, then you might not want to dump a bunch more hay on top. It’s still not known what threats, if any, these software solutions have thwarted. It seems like the major coup has been to find out if someone on an anti-U.S. jag ever glanced at some porn.

New tech, old strategy
New tech, old strategy

Still, we have Bruce Schneier, possibly the most super powered of the technical solution set telling us: “The solutions have to be political. The best advice for the average person is to agitate for political change.” Let’s not disagree with that out of hand, but instead look at the key word here: Agitate. And on this particular issue, what are the effective means of agitation?

Maybe it’s a public demonstration, along agreed routes and with cooperation from the local authorities and some chanting and clever signs and accompanying an angry petition. That’s got such a proven track record. Or, maybe we look at the adversary for what it is, and take efforts to actually challenge it. This leads us back to technical solutions, but with a cause. It’s not enough to tell government agencies you don’t want them to see your private communications. You’ve got to show them you don’t want them to see it. Likewise, telling a government you should have access to content is not the same as showing it that you have access, and that you’ll continue to and that its efforts are not just brutish, but futile. This is agitation. It doesn’t require a petition.


If there’s going to be a petition, it should come in the form of millions of people choosing to send messages to one another that look like they don’t want some government agency reading. The political solution is that people need to decide what they want government wonks knowing about them and then act on it.