Trust – In a System Built in Stone

Interview with Saskia Sassen by Rosemary Bechler – October 14, 2015

Open Democracy

Rosemary Bechler (openDemocracy Editor): We have been invited to think about the apparently widening and wide-reaching trust deficit between European citizens and their states, in preparation for a meeting in Vienna later this October (#rebuildingtrust). Might we begin by getting to grips with the sources of mistrust in our societies. Looking at the global city today, where would you locate these?

Saskia Sassen: There are many such sources, and many have long existed. If I think of major new sources, one key item is the new surveillance apparatus that more and more of our ‘democratic” states are implementing. These technologies have created a whole new domain: the gathering of massive amounts of information by a state about its own citizens.

This is not old-fashioned spying on the enemy. The logic of these all-encompassing systems, is that for our own security we first must all be suspect. This then rationalizes the gathering of data about all those who are in the territory of a country. I gather–there is no hard evidence on this available to the general public–that if you were in the United States as a tourist, you are probably also in that data set. So take a look at the list:

List of What We Know  the NSA Can Do. So Far.

(Thanks to Jody Avirgan , based on Edward Snowden’s Docs)

  •  It can track the numbers of both parties on a phone call, as well location, time and duration. (More)
  •  It can hack Chinese phones and text messages. (More)
  •  It can set up fake internet cafes. (More)
  •  It can spy on foreign leaders’ cell phones. (More)
  •  It can tap underwater fiber-optic cables. (Clarification: Shane Harris explains that there were reports the NSA was trying to tap directly into cables using submarines, but is now more likely trying to intercept information once it has reached land.) (More)
  •  It can track communication within media organizations like Al Jazeera. (More)
  •  It can hack into the UN video conferencing system. (More)
  •  It can track bank transactions. (More)
  •  It can monitor text messages. (More)
  •  It can access your email, chat, and web browsing history. (More)
  •  It can map your social networks. (More)
  •  It can access your smartphone app data. (More)
  •  It is trying to get into secret networks like Tor, diverting users to less secure channels. (More)
  •  It can go undercover within embassies to have closer access to foreign networks. (More)
  •  It can set up listening posts on the roofs of buildings to monitor communications in a city. (More)
  •  It can set up a fake LinkedIn. (More)
  •  It can track the reservations at upscale hotels. (More)
  •  It can intercept the talking points for Ban Ki-moon’s meeting with Obama. (More)
  •  It can crack cellphone encryption codes. (More)
  •  It can hack computers that aren’t connected to the internet using radio waves. (Update: Clarification — the NSA can access offline computers through radio waves on which it has already installed hidden devices.) (More)
  •  It can intercept phone calls by setting up fake base stations. (More)
  •  It can remotely access a computer by setting up a fake wireless connection. (More)
  •  It can install fake SIM cards to then control a cell phone. (More)
  •  It can fake a USB thumb drive that’s actually a monitoring device. (More)
  •  It can crack all types of sophisticated computer encryption. (Update: It is trying to build this capability.) (More)
  •  It can go into online games and monitor communication. (More)
  •  It can intercept communications between aircraft and airports. (More)
  •  (Update 1/18) It can physically intercept deliveries, open packages, and make changes to devices. (More) (h/t)
  •  (Update 1/18) It can tap into the links between Google and Yahoo data centers to collect email and other data. (More) (h/t)
  •  (Update 4/2) It can monitor, in real-time, Youtube views and Facebook “Likes.” (More)
  •  (Update 4/2) It can monitor online behavior through free Wi-Fi at Canadian airports. (More)
  •  (Update 4/2) It can shut down chat rooms used by Anonymous and identify Anonymous members. (More)
  •  (Update 4/2) It can use real-time data to help identify and locate targets for US drone strikes. (More)
  •  (Update 4/2) It can collect the IP addresses of visitors to the Wikileaks website. (More)
  •  (Update 4/2) It can spy on US law firms representing foreign countries in trade negotiations. (More)
  •  (Update 4/2) It can post false information on the Internet in order to hurt the reputation of targets. (More)
  •  (Update 4/2) It can intercept and store webcam images. (More)
  •  (Update 4/2) It can record phone calls and replay them up to a month later. (More)
  •  (Update 6/2) It can harvest images from emails, texts, videoconferencing and more and feed it into facial recognition software. (More)

This new concept of surveillance, which exists in one or another version in many European countries as well, is a trust-breaker between citizens and their governments. Though I do think that most citizens are not aware of this. When I present the material I am going to share with you shortly to a conference of academics or well-informed publics, and ask, have you ever seen this map? – I’m lucky if one or two people raise their hand.

Far too few in the US or abroad have seen some of this. It is all in the public domain, but, I am afraid, it exists more as an abstract notion than as a vast material infrastructure and battalion of specialists.

RB: Beyond sheer digital capacity – can you give us a concrete sense of what is involved?

SS: There are well over 1,200 government organizations working on data gathering in the US. There are also almost 2,000 private companies working with top level secrecy clearance on programmes related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence. An estimated 854,000 people – nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C. – hold top-secret security clearances according to the Washington Post investigation back in 2010, a number that must have jumped. And out of these 854,000 people with top-secret clearance, the Post estimates that 265,000 are private contractors.

This is the world Mr. Snowden used to inhabit, and which led him to exit and expose it.

There are about 10,000 buildings across the US where all this full-time data gathering is taking place.

In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy about 17 million square feet – the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 US Capitol buildings –the Capitol being the “house of democracy”.

The government regulates everything about these infrastructures: for example, the gauge of steel in fences, the grade of paper bag for hauling away top-secret documents, the thickness of walls, and the height of soundproofed floors. All existing buildings have to be checked and new buildings have to be gone over from top to bottom before the NSA will allow even a telephone connection to be set up.

So this in good part a system built in stone.

Click here for the full interview.