Reflections on the film "A Good American"

By Jochen Gruber

Original with subtitles

"The people behind these programs are most interested in the stability of government, in the perpetuation of the status quo. ... You have to recognize that this is their mission, this is their priority. We do know, we have clear evidence that mass surveillance is not solving our terrorism problem. There is convincing evidence that they are not even helping in a material way, and there is some evidence that they are actually harming. Which, of course, is inevitably raising the question: "Ok, so why are we doing this?" These organizations aren't stupid. They've got many experts, they have huge, enormous budgets. So, why are they doing this? And the answer is actually quite obvious: May be it's not effective for preventing terrorism, but clearly it must be effective for something else. That is the reality behind the surveillance. These programs were never about terrorism. They are about economic espionage, diplomatic manipulation and social control. Ultimately, they are about power, about gaining influence relative to other groups within our society and around the world. "

Edward Snowden in the Volksbühne Berlin on 22. September 2016

I. A Good American

Presentation by the director Friedrich Moser

"A Good American“ starts with reporting about the surveillance program ThinThread. Brilliant masterminds like William Binney, Ed Loomis and Kirk Wiebe in NSA's SIGINT Automation Research Center developed it and got it running by the end of the 1990s. NSA installed it at 2 sites, one of them in Germany. Binney and coworkers proposed to deploy it worldwide in January 2001, but the NSA would not allow it. Details below.

With ThinThread Binney proved that bulk data acquisition and searching for terrorists are mutually exclusive from a practical point of view. Rather, bulk data acquisition is the means with which totalitarian governments spy on their own citizens. NSA, says Binney, is orders of magnitude more efficient than the STASI, Gestapo or KGB. The NSA based surveillance state can be switched on at any time against any domestic target. An example of that is "parallel construction". NSA gives FBI, CIA, DEA and IRS access to its data base already today.

II. Details

III. Surveillance in Germany

The German government and parliament apparently follow closely the US example, as has become evident by the passing (on 21 October 2016) of the new and widely criticised law

Critique of the new BND law:

Snowden's appearance at the 33C3

Snowden’s intervention was especially informative in the sense of current surveillance and security debates, including the EU Directive on Combating Terrorism. EDRi has criticised the Directive extensively and pushed for a human rights agenda together with other organisations in order to prevent abuses of freedom of expression and privacy.

As Snowden pointed out, we've repeatedly seen evidence that mass surveillance is actually not effective in stopping terrorism. And yet despite that, we see more and more political support, not only to continue these programmes, but to expand them, and to fund them to even greater levels. As we see in many of EU countries, there is a trend of giving more power to the intelligence agencies, without the reflection of how their activities affect citizens' rights.

“It [surveillance] was never about terrorism, because it’s not effective in stopping terrorism. It’s not about security at all, it’s not about safety. It’s about power. Surveillance is about control. It’s about being able to see moments of vulnerability, in any life, whether that person is a criminal or they are an ordinary person,” said Snowden.

As speaker Andre Meister, EDRi observer, put it, democracy is supposed to be the informed consent of the governed. However, if we are not informed, we cannot really consent to what is happening. Snowden revelations and the inquiry committee in Germany have shown that “spy agencies” function in a way that contradicts the principle of democracy, since they are operating in secret and there's often no control over whether they are breaking laws.

Snowden pointed out the new harsh surveillance legislation in China and Russia passed with the argument of “just keeping up with the Western world”. He expressed his concern about our society no longer being worried about human rights - we are only barely concerned with the rights of our co-citizens. However, Snowden reminded the audience, human rights are universal, and regulated by several international rights agreements and treaties.

The fact is that no country is immune to the trend of increasing mass surveillance. Rights are being violated indiscriminately by intelligence agencies, not only in China and Russia, but in the US, Germany, in the UK, in Canada. And as Snowden put it, secret government is necessarily a bad government. In order not to have bad governments, we have to take action. It might seem that Snowden is preaching to the choir, but his appeal to stand for our privacy and the privacy of others still generates much-needed inspiration.

IV. References

V. Video List

  1. NSA Whistleblower William Binney- The Future of FREEDOM, Tragedy&Hope, 28 January 2015.
  2. "What I see happening is the intelligence communities or agencies of the world are gaining too much influence over how governments operate. And this is moving really to a Stasi state, basically, and it's not just the United States, it's countries all around the world.

    So, I think, in terms of oversight by any government anywhere in the world of intelligence agencies they have to find and make sure they have ways and means of verifying what those agencies are telling them. They have to have outside sources coming in and validating what they're being told. Otherwise these agencies will do basically whatever they want to do and tell whatever story they want to congress or any other equivalent government organ anywhere in the world.

    You have to be aware that these agencies are threatening what is fundamental to human rights everywhere. You have got to ensure that you have some way of verifying and keeping these agencies in line and -whatever it takes in law or whatever it takes technically- to make that happen [what] these governments around the world, all of them, need to do." more

  3. William Binney, NSA is ‘bamboozling’ lawmakers to gain access to Americans’ private records – agency veteran, 12. Juni 2013: transcript (in cache) - video.
  4. From Moscow with Love, Volksbühne Berlin, 22 September 2016, Link on acTV/sm
  5. The United States of Secrets
  6. "FRONTLINE goes behind the headlines to reveal the dramatic inside story of the U.S. government’s massive and controversial secret surveillance program–and the lengths they went to trying to keep it hidden from the public."

    "Part one (May 13, 2014) goes inside Washington to piece together the secret political history of “The Program,” which began in the wake of Sept. 11 and continues today — even after the revelations of its existence by Edward Snowden."

    "Part two (December 22, 2016) explores the secret relationship between Silicon Valley and the National Security Agency: How have the government and tech companies worked together to gather and warehouse your data?"

VI. Related Material

Say "Hi!" to your new boss
How algorithms might soon control our lives

Andreas Dewes

Tue, 12/29/2015 16:00:00

Discrimination and ethics in the data-driven society

Algorithms and „big data“ penetrate many aspects of our lives today. In the future, data collection and analysis will be even more ubiquitous and permeate our lives from morning to night.

Many people (well, mostly business people) welcome this new era of data analysis and the associated vision of an „intelligent planet“. Not so many people seem to be concerned about the other side of the coin though, which is an ever-growing influence of algorithms on our personal life and the accompanying shift of decision power from humans to machines. In as little as 10 years, algorithms might decide if you get a new job – or if you get fired from your current one –, how much you will pay for your health insurance, whether you will be allowed to travel to a given country and who you will marry. So it’s time to say hi to your new boss: the algorithm.

Often people talk either about the consequences of a data-driven society, or about the technological aspects of it, but rarely about the two together. With my talk I want to change that by discussing concrete technologies and algorithms that are used in data analysis today, together with their societal and political implications. I will show how algorithms can be trained to be racist, misogynic and plenty of other things, and that this actually happens in practice if no care is taken to avoid it. Finally, I will discuss various approaches to solve this dilemma, both technological and political.



Speaker: Andreas Dewes
EventID: 7482, Event: 32th Chaos Communication Congress [32c3] of the Chaos Computer Club [CCC]
Location: Congress Centrum Hamburg (CCH); Am Dammtor; Marseiller Straße; 20355 Hamburg; Germany

Version: 22.6.2019
Address of this page
Joachim Gruber