Book review

Even without Cambridge Analytica (or Facebook), was the internet always meant for surveillance?

Yasha Levine’s ‘Surveillance Valley’ provides a frightening history of the dark side of the internet.

When it was recently revealed that Cambridge Analytica had managed to grab the Facebook data of millions of people and used the information it gathered inappropriately to construct psychological profiles which were utilised to influence elections, there were a few predictable reactions. The first was from the world of digital media itself, now wholly beholden to the social media giant for publicity and outreach.

While publishing news of the leak by Cambridge Analytica, news media like Time and The Guardian were quick to argue that this was owing to an unethical practice they named “data harvesting”. Companies like Cambridge Analytica, they said, had taken advantage of Facebook’s laxity to steal the private information of users and sell it to the highest bidder. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, in an interview given to CNN, and in full page ads published in all major American newspapers, apologised for a “breach of trust” and promised to keep data safe in the future.

In all of this there was an emphasis on what CNN’s interviewer Laurie Segall called “bad actors”, who were exploiting Facebook’s features allowing app developers to collect users’ and their friends’ data to go as far as destabilising election processes across the world. A visibly nervous Zuckerberg – spooked at least in part by sharp drops in his company’s market capitalisation and, by extension, his personal wealth – promised that Facebook would double the number of people working on review and security by the end of the year.

Built for surveillance?

But what remained unvoiced was a niggling doubt: of all the “bad actors” out there, could Facebook and the other big tech companies by the biggest, baddest actors of them all? Surveillance Valley, Yasha Levine’s new book, posits an unsettling new thesis: the internet, and all that is in based on it, is not only a tool developed under the aegis of the US military and intelligence agencies, but is also a worldwide surveillance network that clothes itself in the garb of individual freedom and apolitical technocratism.

In the popular imagination, the story of the internet is restricted to the creation of a data sharing centre at the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Networking Office by Stephen Wolff in 1986. The NSF was a federal agency, and Wolff’s creation of the NSFNET was a way to link the supercomputers of five universities to form the first public network of connected computers. Within the next five years the NSFNET backbone connected thirteen regional networks and 170 more colleges. The internet, as we know it, was officially born with the privatisation of the NSFNET.

There is a secret history of the Internet, however, which belies this heartwarming story of academic networks going commercial. What preceded the NSFNET was, as Levine tells us, “...a convoluted story. Wade in deep enough and you find yourself in a swamp of three-letter federal agencies, network protocol acronyms, government initiatives, and congressional hearings filled with technical jargon and mind-numbing details. But on a fundamental level it was very simple: after two decades of lavish funding and research and development inside the Pentagon system, the Internet was transformed into a consumer profit centre.”

That this consumer profit centre is still massively beholden to the military-intelligence complex that engendered it is the primary thrust of Levine’s book. Cloaked and swaddled in libertarianism and radical revolutionary discourse, the internet as we know it is thoroughly co-opted by all agencies of the state. Drawing on an immense trove of resources that go back to the 1950s, Levine has attempted to delineate this secret history in a way that is both easily accessible to lay readers, while still appending over one hundred pages of notes that cite all his sources in great detail.

Starting from the secretive Project Agile of the Vietnam War, and ending with the false promises of internet privacy and freedom advanced by companies like Tor and Signal, Levine patiently deconstructs all the major narratives that make up the myth of the golden digital age.

Deconstructing the beginning

Right after Soviet Russia launched the first satellite, Sputnik, into space in 1957, the American President Dwight D Eisenhower hired a new secretary of defence, Neil McElroy, a marketing expert and president of Procter & Gamble, to cook up a perfect public relations project called ARPA or the Advanced Research Projects Agency. ARPA was supposed to be an organisation that would “cut through government red tape and create a public-private vehicle of pure military science to push the frontiers of military technology and develop vast weapon systems of the future.”

What ARPA effectively created, under the supervision of William Godel, was a vast data collection and storage agency that collated “interviews, polls, population counts, detailed anthropological studies of various tribes, maps, available weapons, migration studies, social networks, agricultural practices, dossiers…out of ARPA’s centres in Vietnam and Thailand.” Drowning in this immense treasure trove of data, the administrators of ARPA realised that they had to construct a system that was capable of handling all the information and presenting it with a simple graphic user interface and the ability to interact with other computers in real time.

The first developers of ARPANET, JCR Licklider, got this idea of a vast information processing network that functioned just like any organic of ecological system, from his association with the famous thinker and mathematician Norbert Wiener’s ideas on cybernetics. Wiener, who was a distinguished professor at MIT, had a revolutionary idea that the world could be defined for all intents and purposes as a giant computational machine that ran on the exchange of information. Wiener himself had been spurred on to develop this discipline by his time in the military, building anti-aircraft cannons that could predict the trajectory of a plane based on its pilot’s actions so as to effectively destroy it.

The technology military complex

With the commercialisation of the internet came a new problem: how could the vast amount of data on the Web be easily searched for specific information? Early search engines like Yahoo! were premised on a simple text search. It was Lawrence Page and Sergey Brin’s Google which changed the search engine game with a model that incorporated a ranking system, similar to that which ranks academic journals based on number of times each has been cited.

“The internet was essentially one giant citation machine,” writes Levine. The story of Google also cannot be separated from its association with the military intelligence complex. Working at Stanford, Larry Page published his research on search engines funded by DARPA (which was what ARPA was now called). This association however, as Levine says, is not just a thing of the past. “Google has been selling its Google Search, Google Earth, and Google Enterprise (now known as G Suite) products to just about every major military and intelligence agency: navy, army, air force.”

All major tech companies can be seen to be in bed with the state: Amazon manages cloud computing services for the CIA; Peter Thiel’s PayPal operates Palantir Technologies, which does data mining for the NSA and CIA; and Facebook has former DARPA head Regina Dugan running its virtual reality programme which can be used by the military to build a VR environment that can simulate cyberwars. The relationship between these tech companies and the US government varies only by degrees; Google stands out due to its immense size and capability for surveillance and data mining. All tech companies are equally guilty.

The NSA has even got a program called PRISM which “involves a sophisticated on-demand data tap housed within the datacentres of the biggest and most respected names in Silicon Valley: Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo!, and Microsoft.” In such a situation, isn’t it obvious that we idolise heroes like Julian Assange, Jacob Appelbaum, Roger Dingledine of Tor, and Edward Snowden? Are they not digital vigilantes protecting our privacy from the hands of the state?

Levine’s book bursts this bubble as well. The Tor browser, developed by Roger Dingledine, promises complete privacy from both government and private surveillance. It has been recommended and used by both Wikileaks and Snowden. However, as Levine writes, Tor was developed with a massive influx of funds from federal agencies like DARPA and the BBG or the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Why would agencies interested in spying on their citizens develop a tool that is completely safe from surveillance?

Levine’s investigations result in two highly interesting answers to this question. First of all, these tools were developed to cloak the identity of spies working undercover. As Dingledine himself said at a computer conference in Berlin in 2004: “The United States government can’t simply run an anonymity system for everybody and then use it themselves only. Because then every time a connection came from it people would say, ‘Oh, it’s another CIA agent.’ If those are the only people using the network.”

The more ordinary people who used it, the better spies could hide themselves in the crowd. Secondly, Tor was hardly as invincible to government surveillance as it claimed. In 2015 researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, working under a Pentagon contract, cracked Tor’s network with just $3000 worth of equipment. The aura of invincibility around it was busted. Tor, which was the darling of all the privacy vigilantes from Julian Assange to Edward Snowden, is revealed by Levine as being an integral part of the very ecosystem it pretends to be fighting against.

Surveillance Valley is perhaps one of the most deeply disturbing books of the year. It leaves no illusions intact; none of the heroes of the internet, be they Google, Tor, Snowden or Assange, can offer us a way out of this universal web of surveillance and control.

Even academic institutions like MIT, Stanford, and others, are just cogs in this giant computational machine. Surveillance and control are embedded in the genetics of computational technology. Surveillance Valley offers no clear solution to this mess we find ourselves in today. It concludes with a plea for the democratisation of the Internet. But in this age where the Internet is destabilising, rather than protecting democracy, is it possible to escape this “military cybernetic dream of a world where everyone is watched, predicted, and controlled”? Or can we only repeat what Martin Heidegger said in response to Wiener, that “only a god can save us”?

Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet, Yasha Levine, PublicAffairs

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