Friday, February 20, 2015

What is the priority for an oligarchy? Surveillance.

If you read tech news, you might have heard how the NSA and the GCHQ have been compromising the firmware of computers and phones. First the hard drives. Everyone who has a desktop or laptop computer has a hard drive. The hard drive has a tiny computer inside called a disk controller. The disk controller accepts and interprets commands for data access, read and write, from the CPU of the computer. The US and UK governments have learned how to compromise the software in that disk controller and make it servile to their commands.

How was this done? We don't know exactly how, as disk drive manufacturers deny complicity with the government. But we do know that it can be reverse engineered just for the purpose of surveillance.

The second piece is the SIM card. Everyone has one in their phone. They are used to identify the phone and to provide encryption keys to keep the communications from the phone safe. Now we learn that the NSA and GCHQ have stolen billions of encryption keys just for the purpose of compromising security on the phones.

What has been done is astonishing in scope and breathless in chutzpah. All in the name of what!?! The War On Terror. You can read many accounts of the story with all the gory details with a few pointed searches, but I've found one that covers both at TechDirt.

Since most of the accounts that I've seen so far cover the details so well, I want to cover an angle on the story that hasn't really been brought up. Why?

For more than a decade, we've been told that all this surveillance is necessary in order to maintain the safety of the people. The mindset is that if the security agencies save just one life, every compromise they have made is justified. But the reality is that the war on terror is a war on privacy and that war has but one purpose and it's not to maintain the safety of the state. We have that even without all the surveillance.

Don't forget that security agencies aren't the only ones with the means to compromise hardware security. Eventually, their exact methods will be leaked to the really bad guys, the people who want your credit card numbers and social security numbers. Security compromise is a double-edged sword.

We live in a country where the middle class has near-zero influence on public policy. Anyone below also has zero influence on public policy. Therefore, the people who do have the influence on public policy are giving the orders for this level of surveillance. We're probably speaking too broadly when we say the 1%, but lets keep the discussion simple and start there.

Warren Buffet, one of the richest men on earth, has this to say:
"Actually, there’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years, and my class has won. We’re the ones that have gotten our tax rates reduced dramatically."
I suggest that class warfare extends to surveillance. It's already been proven that America is an oligarchy where the only people who have influence on public policy are the 1%. They're writing the checks and I'm not talking about taxes. I'm talking campaign contributions.

Look at it another way. When more than 5 million people lose their homes and the people who get bailed out are the bankers, do you think that the bankers might even be a bit worried? When hedge fund managers make out like bandits by moving aluminum from warehouse to warehouse, adding incremental costs to aluminum for everyone else, and they get caught, do they worry about it? Probably not if government has got their back. How about the LIBOR scandal, a scam that cost consumers and government at all levels more than $10 billion? That's a really great way to manipulate interest rates for profit, at least until you're caught. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan? That cost us more than $1 trillion, with many millions lost to reconstruction of Iraq and contractor scams.

If hedge fund managers are so scared that they're planning to jet to New Zealand when the uprising starts, then surveillance of the scope and magnitude perpetrated by the NSA and GCHQ makes perfect sense. If you're a billionaire, getting access to that data is not a problem.

The surveillance state is not about the war on terror, it's a war on the middle class with one central purpose: give the 1% the means to monitor everyone else so that they can bail when they need to, or apply force when its still possible to do it.

If we live in a constitutional republic, there is simply no justification for security agencies breaking into hardware to gather *everything* we have on disk or phone. But someone at the top has found a justification in their own mind to get this done and do it quietly before anyone can stop them. The scale of the compromise is so massive, that we can easily conclude that *everyone else* is an enemy of the state from the perspective of the top 1%.

But we don't have to accept this as our future. We can make changes. We can restore our democracy. How?

By insisting on fundamental reform of campaign finance laws. Hey, if 500,000 Walmart employees can get a raise all at once, we can make changes in campaign finance laws that provide the incentives required for our elected representatives to listen to the rest of us. There are two organizations that are well known and working hard to reform campaign finance:

mayday.us
The Friends of Democracy

Get involved, make a donation to the SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs. Join the Friends of Democracy to support candidates who are serious about campaign finance reform. This is how we get started with returning the government to the people, you know, everyone else. This is the best place to start effective reform of the government. There are no better options short of revolution.
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