"You've had your debate. There's no need to write any more."
The NSA has always had a problem with the open internet. Now a convergence of interests with large corporations is offering them the tools to destroy it.
Security relies on the keeping of secrets, and the keeping of secrets in a bureaucracy relies on compartmentalization: the left hand remaining unaware of the right hand's activities. Unfortunately, secrecy is inimical to understanding, and the whole purpose of an intelligence agency is to make sense of, and to provide an understanding of, the environment in which the subjects of its surveillance exist. The function of a newspaper or wire service is similar (once you get past "make money by selling advertising and providing readers with sufficiently interesting content that they look at the ads": and as long as they're pursuing traditional substantive news reporting, rather than merely extruding news-shaped prose, as with USA Today or the Daily Mail).
But newspapers have some advantages over the spooks right now. Their requirement for secrecy is strictly time-limited; once their exclusive scoop is on the front page or the top of the website, they don't need it any more. And newspapers aren't limited to physical premises and employees in a specific location or of a specific nationality ...
We've had a very interesting insight into this in the past week. First, Glen Greenwald's partner David Miranda was detained and questioned by the UKBA under Section 7 of the Terrorism Act while transiting Heathrow Airport. (Note: failure to answer questions under Section 7 is a criminal offense — there's no right to avoid self-incrimination under this law. It may well be in conflict with the Human Rights Act, but nobody has yet brought a case to court: one is pending.) Furthermore, all his personal electronics were confiscated. Miranda's partner is of course the key investigative journalist working on the Wikileaks dump for the New York Times and The Guardian. His questioning was irregular enough that journalists, human rights lawyers, Amnesty International, and various MPs (including the Labour Party's shadow home secretary) are all protesting it and the government's own anti-terrorism law watchdog is calling for an explanation.
Now there's a new revelation: The Guardian has come under immense pressure from the British government to destroy or return the Wikileaks data, to the point of having men in uniform turn up with a warrant to smash hard drives.
However, there's an equally important item buried in Alan Rusbridger's account of that day (above). Just as large multinational corporations can seek the country with the most friendly regime for tax purposes, so too can news agencies seek out the most permissive legal environment. (In the light of this item, it should come as no surprise to note that David Miranda is a Brazilian citizen and Glen Greenwald lives in Brazil much of the time. Brazil is not party to the UKUSA joint intelligence sharing treaty and has no dog in the wikileaks fight.)
The spooks are not stupid. There are two ways they can respond to this in a manner consistent with their current objectives. They can try to shut down the press — a distinct possibility within the UK, but still incredibly dangerous — or they can shut down the open internet, in order to stop the information leakage over that channel and, more ambitiously, to stop the public reading undesirable news.
I think they're going for the latter option, although I doubt they can make it stick. Let me walk you through the early stages of what I think is going to happen.
In the UK it's fairly obvious what the mechanism will be. Prime Minister David Cameron has thrown his weight behind mandatory opt-out porn filtering at an ISP level, to protect our children from a torrent of filth on the internet. (He's turned to Chinese corporation Huawei for the tool in question.) All new domestic ISP customer accounts in the UK will be filtered by default, unless the owner opts out. There's also the already-extant UK-wide child pornography filter operated by the Internet Watch Foundation, although its remit is limited to items that are probably illegal to possess ("probably" because that's a determination for a court of law to make). And an existing mechanism — the Official Secrets Act — makes it an offense to possess, distribute, or publish state secrets. Traditionally newspapers were warned off certain state secrets by a process known as a Defense Advisory Notice, warning that publication would result in prosecution. It doesn't take a huge leap of the imagination to foresee the creation of a law allowing for items subject to a DA-Notice to be filtered out of the internet via a national-level porn filter to protect the precious eyeballs of the citizenry from secrets that might trouble their little heads.
On the other hand, the UK may not have a First Amendment but it does have a strong tradition of press freedom, and there are signs that the government has already overreached itself. We'll know things are really going to hell in a handbasket when The Guardian moves its editorial offices to Brazil ...
The question of how one might censor the internet in the USA is a little less clear. The First Amendment allows no scope for DA notices and national internet filtering, after all. However:
The NSA's close relationship with the large corporations is now a matter of public record; Apple, Google, Facebook, and other major ISPs have all been implicated in the NSA's PRISM program. Non-compliant ISPs such as Lavabit and Silent Circle that emphasize customer privacy have been shut down by their owners, presumably after pressure to provide a non-selective trawl of customer email (Lavabit had previously provided individual customer emails in response to a court order, so this indicates a significant escalation in monitoring). The Feds are pissed — apparently shutting down your business rather than continuing it and silently snooping on your customers may be prosecuted as contempt of court. So where does that leave us?
Well, in the Anglophone internet we're currently seeing a quiet but increasingly desperate war for control of the web, partitioning it into vertical silos controlled by various interests. Facebook has a near-monopoly on search-for-people; if you want to find someone, the odds are high that Facebook has got them (especially true if they're nearly tech-illiterate; Facebook is AOL for the Web 2.0 era). Amazon.com has a near-monopoly on retail produce sales over the internet and is trying for a monopoly on books and magazines. (They're now bigger than WalMart.) EBay is where you go to buy second-hand stuff or personal items (I'd be surprised if they don't try to swallow Etsy and the other Maker auction sites soon). And Google is where you search for everything else. There are a couple of also-ran contenders — Apple and Microsoft — but they're not there yet, and anyway, from the NSA's perspective they're as easy to control as the current Big Four. (Microsoft's Skype has already been restructured to centralize it and make it NSA tap-friendly; I'd be astonished if Apple's iMessage isn't also compromised.)
If you can tap data from the major search engines, how hard is it to insert search results into their output?
Easy, it turns out. As easy as falling off a log. Google and Facebook are both advertising businesses. Twitter's trying to become one. Amazon and Ebay both rent space at the top of their search results to vendors who pay more money or offer more profits. Advertising is the keyword. All the NSA needs, in addition to the current information gathering capability, is the ability to inject spurious search results that submerge whatever nugget the user might be hunting for in a sea of irrelevant sewage. Imagine hunting for "Snowden" on Google and, instead of finding The New York Times or The Guardian's in-depth coverage, finding page after page of links to spam blogs.
Possibly the only thing protecting us from this contingency so far is that the first law of intelligence agencies is that information goes in, it never goes out. The idea of deliberately seeding the internet with disinformation is profoundly inimical to the usual methods and mission of an intelligence agency. (Organizations such as the KGB could do it only because the KGB wasn't a pure intelligence agency — it was a secret police force with intelligence gathering as part of its remit.)
If we see the NSA or other US government agencies getting into the disinformation business, then the end game has arrived: there really is a Deep State developing, and it's adopting the tactics of a secret police agency — not merely enforcing laws, or gathering information, but trying to influence the beliefs of the citizenry by systematically lying to them. (China's already there, with its national firewall and prior censorship of news media.) But I don't think we're there just yet.