Are we moving towards a totalitarian police state?
ARE WE MOVING TOWARDS A TOTALITARIAN POLICE STATE?
Professor Mark Harrison, Department of Economics
In the wake of recent revelations around the levels of access that organisations like the NSA and GCHQ have to our online private lives, and the actions taken by men like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, Professor Mark Harrison asks where we might be heading and compares the West’s ‘secret’ state with the established methods of the KGB.
Widespread concerns about mass surveillance in Western societies have been triggered by two revelations in The Guardian: a court order of the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court giving the FBI unlimited access to the call logs of the Verizon telephone network; and details of the Prism program that gives the US National Security Agency (NSA) – and maybe others, such as our own GCHQ – access to servers through which foreign communications pass.
Natural questions arise. Are our liberties at risk, along with our privacy? Are we moving in the wrong direction along the spectrum that runs from a free and democratic society to a totalitarian police state?
To help answer such questions, it would seem only sensible to ask how surveillance works in real totalitarian police states. The answer might give us a reality check. That comparison is what I’m going to offer. I’m going to point out some important similarities between what the NSA (and others) are up to and the functions of the secret police under communist rule. I’m also going to show some differences. My conclusion is going to be that we are a long, long way from mass surveillance in the style of the Soviet KGB or China’s Public Security Bureau. But that should not be completely reassuring.
Here are the similarities that look important to me.
“If you’re looking for a needle in the haystack, you need a haystack.”
That haystack is the millions and billions of bits of our data that are being gathered. Mass surveillance was also the business of the KGB, as it is the business of the secret police under any dictator. In fact, counter-intelligence everywhere has an unquenchable thirst for personal facts. Every secret policeman knows that the most dangerous enemy is the one you don’t have on file. You can keep tabs on the ones already in the Rolodex – but what about the sleepers, the new recruits, the ones that are out there and completely invisible to you? It’s what you don’t know that can kill you. So, in the interests of staying alive you can never know enough.
To know what was unusual, they had first to know what was usual...The abnormal would stand out only against the normal
Detection relies on big data
The goal is prevention
Risk of Type I errors
Those are the ways in which western counter-intelligence looks very much the same as counter-intelligence under totalitarian rule. But there are also some key differences.Page 2 >>
Professor Mark Harrison has spent much of the past five years working with archives of the KGB of Soviet Lithuania held at the Hoover Institution Archive. This work is in a paper he has coming out soon in the Journal of Economic History and in other work in progress or under review.
Image: Image of Oakland Riot Police by Thomas Hawk (via Flickr).
Guns and Rubles: the Defense Industry in the Stalinist State. Edited by Professor Mark Harrison. Yale University Press (2008).
NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily. The Guardian, 6 June 2013
New NSA tool to quantify, track intelligence collection revealed – live. The Guardian, 8 June 2013
Administration Says Mining of Data Is Crucial to Fight Terror. The New York Times, 7 June 2013
Office of the Chief Archivist of Lithuania [English page link]