PRISM: time for the Left to wake up

The ‘revelations’ that the NSA has been monitoring all US phone traffic for some time, and that most major internet giants have been participating in the PRISM programme, allowing the US to harvest explicit data, have surprised and angered many people. They are prompting a renewed focus on the new levels of surveillance, such as those that helped disrupt the Occupy movement in New York.

Without getting snooty, there are those of us who wonder at the surprise. The capacity for gathering meta-data ­– no, not the content of phone conversations but how’s calling who, for how long etc – ­­ is embedded in the PATRIOT Act. Meta-data collection was ratified by the US Supreme Court in 1979.

But more importantly the very form of the technology is predisposed to collection. The 1979 meta-data collection ruling came at a time when most US phone exchanges were being fully digitised and automated. At that time, there were material limitations – analogue and only semi-automated exchanges required human intervention.

Digitisation has made the data weightless, and essentially unanchored. Information not only wants to be free, it also wants to be harvested. The situation is essentially the mirror of the process of leaking. The Pentagon Papers took Daniel Ellsberg six months to collect, via briefcase and photocopier, day by day. Their volume amounted to less than a thousandth of the material in the Wikileaks ‘cablegate’ archive, loaded onto a Lady Gaga CD.

Furthermore, a moment’s consideration of the technologies we use suggests we have simply left ourselves open to mass monitoring. Mobile phones are obviously a tracking device with a phone component attached. The smartphone ups that ante, allowing the collection of vast amounts of personal data.

Facebook provides a private depot wherein people volunteer their data, and Gmail and Outlook reroute all your most private information through transnational private corporations with an interest in co-operating with power.

Once that point is made most people realise that they are not merely monitored but are doing the work of expediting the delivery of their data to the authorities by the very act of communication. Some people take refuge in the idea that there is now so much data that there could be no useful analysis of it. That simply denies the vast improvements in word-recognition, facial-recognition and other tools, and the determination to use them. Thus the NSA is constructing a new facility in Bluffdale, Utah, with a five zettabyte data capacity: enough to store all communications data for a century.

Legal challenges are currently being made against the Verizon handover, but for the Left there can no longer be a simple recourse to a liberal state that is being hollowed out in any case. The current Left was framed as the ‘New Left’ in the most liberal period of western society and eventually parts of it became state-subsidised. The last vestiges of clandestinity in our political practice died away with the passing of older generations, just – just as the technology of communications fully digitised and the web/internet became the default mode. Hackers and cypherpunks spotted this first before. After 9/11, a public, general and mass attack on privacy and liberal rightsgot underway.

It only became apparent to some of us more recently. That is in part because the Left has – contrary to its earlier history – largely been drawn from the humanities, and regards its key tools and technique as interpretive theory. Yet one of the processes by which this new world has come about has involved the techniques of information and communication themselves becoming a technical practice in which we can intervene.

Over the decades, the gap has widened, so that many of us are now technically inept in the very techniques in which we need to have some competence, not for clandestine purposes, but simply to exercise secure and private communications in the pursuit of political goals.

That means that more of us will need to develop the skills of coding, to have an understanding of the top-level ready-made packages we rely on for communication; and also develop the use of encrypted networks such as Tor, and begin to normalise the use of these for day-to-day communication. That is by no means sufficient solution for all the problems that a global surveillance state portends but it has now become a necessary one.


Guy Rundle is currently a correspondent-at-large for Crikey online daily, and a former editor of Arena Magazine. His ebook, And the Dream Lives On? Barack Obama, the 2012 Election and the Great Republican Whiteout, is forthcoming.

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  1. Ever feel like you had just ceased being apart from it all? This article wants to be that movie. (I’d certainly be happy to part with the ticket money if it gets up.) But are lefties allowed to be so unboring? Doesn’t it undo all the hard work that our elders and betters sank into making us grey? ‘The emotions are not skilled workers,’ as Ern Malley said that Lenin said.

  2. I don’t want to seem as if I’m obsessively disagreeing with Guy but he remains one of the few leftwing writers with whom it’s possible to have an argument without the discussion lapsing into apolitical snark, which is I like debating him.
    On that basis, a brief [OK, that didn't work!] response to this article — basically, just building on debates we’ve had elsewhere.
    First, what’s missing here is any comment on the bigger political issue, namely the widespread liberal illusions in Obama. It’s a point that Greenwald has been making repeatedly: there’s all kinds of figures on the Left who would have been screaming blue murder if this was a Bush program but who are prepared to give Obama a free pass because he seems like such a nice man. The NYT, for instance, quotes Andrew Sullivan saying about Greenwald: ‘I think he has little grip on what it actually means to govern a country or run a war. He’s a purist in a way that, in my view, constrains the sophistication of his work.’
    That identification with Obama as a well-meaning, good hearted liberal, doing what’s necessary to ‘run a war’ remains a major obstacle that needs to be confronted. As Salon puts it today:

    Reality has sunk in for many Americans, who at last understand that the guy we elected on the naive expectation that he would undo the excesses of the Bush-Cheney national security state has instead made them much worse. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for Obama to escape this legacy now. He is the drone president, the assassination president, the domestic-surveillance president, whose entire administration has a professionalized passion for secrecy that makes the low-rent paranoids of the Nixon White House look like Keystone Kops. I did not suspect that I would ever again find an occasion to quote a Sarah Palin gag line, but hey: How is that hopey-changey stuff workin’ out for ya?

    What we’re seeing now, actually, is the classic problem with lesser evilism: actually, it’s the so-called ‘liberal’ candidate who actually implements the most draconian legislation. That’s something to which we need to face up.

    Further, as I’ve said to him elsewhere, I think Guy’s wrong about the significance of clandestine practices on the Left. In a previous article, he’s pointed to the anarchists of the 1890s and then the parties in the Bolshevik tradition as instances in which Leftists operated in such a way as to evade the intrusions of the state. In both cases, though, the examples are open to considerable question. Actually, the anarchists in the conspiracist tradition were, by and large, riddled with informers and provocateurs. As for the Leninist tradition, I think Guy takes the later Zinoviev-Stalin analysis on face value. The new historical work on the Bolsheviks themselves reveal an organisation that’s far from the iron tight monolith of Stalinist legend, a quite chaotic group engaged in perpetual and surprisingly open debates. And, of course, the Tsarist police knew almost everything that was being planned, since they had informers at ever level of the organisation, including the CC. The Western parties were scarcely better. Having spent quite a lot of time in the archives of the CPA, the notion that it was this water tight, disciplined group able to keep its discussions secret is very hard to swallow. Actually, the files show that the security agencies knew almost everything that took place in the CPA since, once again, they had informants throughout the party.
    Following on from this, I think Guy overstates the importance of state monitoring. Yes, I am sure that the various US agencies devoted considerable time to monitoring Occupy. But I don’t accept that was what destroyed the movement. The problems go deeper than that. All around the world, the Occupy groups had to debate basic political issues. How do you organise? What attitude do you have to political parties? How do you respond to the state?
    The inability to formulate adequate answers to those questions meant that the movemment could not continue past a certain point. I think Alex Snowdon brings this out quite well in a review of the latest Socialist Register (with a focus on Jodi Dean’s Occupy essay):

    The need for democratic structures which can guide effective action was too often evaded. If there are not accountable leaders or leadership bodies then unaccountable leaders emerge. The rhetoric of being ‘leaderless’, however well-intentioned and genuine, is soon complemented by unaccountable leadership and weak democracy. This reduces the capacity for collective action around coherent demands.

    In New York the biggest Occupy-related protests resulted from trade-union participation. However, without coherent strategy there was a failure to build fully on the successes. Instead the tendency was for fragmentation into disparate campaigns and projects. Without a clear, agreed strategy for reaching out to broader layers of support, sustaining the occupation was increasingly seen as an end in itself. The movement was liable to turn in on itself; ‘obsessively reflecting on its failures adequately to include’ (p.54). Questions of process became more important than questions of action.

    Dean observes that Occupy ‘mobilised not a proletariat bound to the factory but the proletarianised, extended throughout uneven, unequal cities’ (p.55). This is a valuable insight: in a period of low levels of industrial struggle, protests and occupations are the primary expression of resistance. But that does not mean abandoning any notion of working-class struggle or politics: it is a question of forms of resistance, shaped by the realities of today’s working class and the legacy of defeats for the organised working class during the long neoliberal offensive.

    Dean suggests, provocatively and, in my view, correctly, that the occupiers effectively formed a ‘self-selected vanguard’ in a broader struggle, taking on the kind of responsibilities Lenin attributed to professional revolutionaries or Bolshevik cadre. She writes that they were ‘establishing and maintaining a continuity, a persistence, that enables broader numbers of people to join in the work of the movement. This continuity combats the fragmentation, localism and transitoriness of much of contemporary left politics’ (p.56).

    Now one can agree or disagree with Snowdon’s take on these particular issues but it seems clear that these were issues that had to be resolved irrespective of state surveillance, and that the inability to do so made the viability of Occupy very problematic.
    I am not trying to say that we shouldn’t be outraged at PRISM and that we shouldn’t try to fight against it. But I am concerned that some responses seem almost to conclude that any kind of resistance now is doomed.
    For instance, Guy says:

    That means that more of us will need to develop the skills of coding, to have an understanding of the top-level ready-made packages we rely on for communication; and also develop the use of encrypted networks such as Tor, and begin to normalise the use of these for day-to-day communication.

    Obviously, knowing how to code would be useful. But I’m curious to know what a mass based democratic politics based on encrypted networks entails. To me, the whole notion seems oxymoronic. How does one participate in a movement being organised in code? There’s either two options, surely.
    One: you go back to small group conspiracies, with decisions made by a tiny bunch of people (those who know the codes). That seems a reversion to something like Blanquism, and suffers from the all the old problems, most significantly that such groups cannot relate to mass politics and are inevitably infiltrated by informers who then use their possession of the codes to buttress their own position.
    Two: you try to encourage a mass movement to use encryption. For the life of me, I can’t see what this means. Here’s the New Yorker reporting from the Turkish protests:
    ‘I realized that almost every person there was either typing on a phone or recording the scene on a tablet.’ Isn’t the whole point of what was taking place there precisely that it was open and that it was public?
    I guess Guy’s response is that, well, you can be committed to mass politics and still need to hold meetings or discussions or otherwise organise securely — and that’s where Tor comes in. OK, I’m prepared to accept that but I think this way of presenting the problem leads to a massive pessimism, since after reading about what’s technologically possible now it’s hard to have any confidence that the Left will ever be able to manage to maintain secrecy.
    Whereas for me the question of secrecy is actually quite a minor one. A year or so ago, someone showed me an old ASIO file on a leading member of the socialist group to which I once belonged. From that file, it was quite clear that ASIO had an informer in a leading position in that group — quite possibly on the national committee. That meant there would have been almost nothing that we did that the security forces didn’t know about. Did it make any difference? No, not particularly. Actually, whether that group was effective or whether it was hopeless came down largely to a series of political decisions. Or, to put it another way, we destroyed ourselves: we didn’t need anyone external to do it for us. Had the group been entirely secure, it would have made no difference at all.
    That’s my concern with this focus. Yes, we should be outraged about PRISM. But we cannot make the security state an alibi for our own political problems.

  3. No surprise with the Prism leak but as with wikileaks leaks it does provide the prof as well as a wakeup call thats hard for the liberal media and populace to totally ignore.

  4. Yes, I too am guilty of starting off by saying that i’ll make a brief reply and then having to go back with square brackets to amend that. Let’s see how we go:

    My proposition in this most recent piece was:

    1 – the revelations concerning the PRISM surveillance make visible to many what a small but growing group realised hitherto – that there is a level of total surveillance in place across the West, centred in the US, and relying on the weightlessness of digital data

    2 – a necessary response to that level of data is for leftists – most from a humanist tradition – to get a better technical grasp of the global technical system that is now the carrier of power. That involves 1) getting some knowledge of coding, and via it an ability to go beyond the ‘black box’ character of off-the-shelf tech we use, and 2) using encrypted comms systems for the purpose of a) communication around legal activities and b) communication around civil disobedient and dissident activities.

    Let’s go to the argument around legal activities first. My point was a dead simple one – in the transition between snailmail, early email and the current monopoly capitalist corporate email/social media, we forgot some basics, lulled by the utopian notions of the internet (no matter how sceptical we thought we were). Thus we simply communicate openly through private corps who reserve the right to read all our data electronically and pass it along to the state. This is akin in snailmail terms to communicating via postcard about all sorts of sensitive stuff, using Fedex as your mail carrier, and signing a user agreements saying they can pass it thru a text scanner if they wish.

    The use of encryption in this sense is nothing more than the digital equivalent of that high-faluting bit of tech – an envelope. The level of security I’m suggesting is that basic.

    The second use – regarding action planning, civil disobedience etc and more – was also simpler. Jeff’s notes about party structures etc refer to an earlier and more involved argument. I’m not making that here. I’m making a simpler one. Whether you believe Zinoviev or Lih on the Bolsheviks, one thing everyone can agree on is that they did well was to develop secure comms as a discipline – invisible ink, concealment suitcases, false identities, etc etc. If that appears kitsch now, it’s because the technology has changed and it’s become a pop culture staple.

    In the decades of legal activity we have become complacent about such processes. Yet the evidence of massive and politically disruptive surveillance, and its effects on movements such as Occupy is too great to ignore. Jeff, you yourself tweeted a link to a Salon article, documenting how everyone at Occupy gatherings was tracked by their smartphone. But that’s been clear to some of us (from the cloddish humanist left) for a couple of years, and to the hackerati for more than a decade. A smartphone is a tracking device with a phone thrown in for free.

    So the simple argumentt I’m making is that if you’re going to participate in movements like Occupy, don’t be a mug. Getting a PAYG sim, leave your cool smartphone used to twtpic wittily captioned hipster selfies from Zuccotti ground zero at a friend’s house – and maybe there’s less of a chance you’ll be arrested that evening and left in a cell for three days without anyone knowing you were taken.

    That extends to the use of Tor, PGP and other systems for less insecure communication. It is becoming simple common sense that this should be distributed massively. The obvious answer as to how it will spread in a mass democratic movement is the same as it always has been with new technologies such as writing and printing. Start using it, spread it, teach it, and its uptake becomes exponential. The left is a movement based on written texts, and so a crucial part of its campaign has always been spreading literacy. How many of the ‘Chartists’ could read the original Charter? How many millions got their first reading lesson from the Communist Manifesto? What was Freire’s language praxis pedagogy revolution about? The digital/coding/comms revolution is that for our era.

    So, you concede much of my argument in acknowledging that Tor might be useful, but decry the pessimism involved in getting to this stage. Pessimism is not a useful word in strategic thinking, but if it is to be used then let’s recall Gramsci optimism of heart/pessimism of head. Pessimism in that sense is merely due caution – not fear, hopelessness etc but caution – which simply acknowledges the reality of enemies. It is rational to plan on a worst case scenario when there are people organised to destroy you.

    Surely, in the week when it has become clear that every online communication is being harvested and stored, there is something a little risible about talking about pessimism? I agree with you absolutely about not fetishising surveillance and what it can do, but there’s a limit to that attitude. I think you’re going beyond the notion that mass popular democratic action can defeat such processes to a point of undervaluing their effect on the capacity to organise for such action in the first place. It is verging on a wilful obtuseness, an optimisim of the head which involves some disconnection from the world as we now find it.

    My argument to the Left, myself included, is that we came up through a humanist tradition which had a particular approach to theory, drawn from Leninist success – that, if you got the interpetive theory right, you would meet with political success. (Owing to bad weather, that revolution occurred, in our era, in literary studies, but hey.). But of course there was another dimension – the developing science of political organisation, of how a small group could punch above its weight, and more mundane things – running one’s own printing press, the actual technique of print media production, running commercial surrogates, front groups etc etc. Further back there was Marx’s revolution whereby an ethical stance on capitalism was converted into an interpretive one. The task became to understand how this process worked at its most micrological level, as well as a macro one.

    Both those transformations are encapsulated in what I’m suggesting we as leftists need to do to transform ourselves for this new world. First we need to understand how this techno-politico-economic- socio-cultural ensembles works, and get beyond the blackbox of received technology. Part of that involves some knowledge of coding etc. I’m not suggesting we all have to become ubergeeks, but we need to get one level more familiar with the tech – and from some knowledge of software, get a better knowledge of hardware and the system.

    Second we need to be able to use it to organise more effectively and securely for the pursuit of legal, private and public activity, with more chance of avoiding disruption, state sabotage, interference etc etc.

    Thirdly we need to see intellectual practices as related – ‘theory’ as we currently figure it is a philosophical-sociological practice of interpretation to steer ends and strategic action. ‘Digital praxis’ overlaps with that, but extends towards technological understanding and practical knowledge. We need a bit more of the latter and a bit less of the former. More Java, less Balibar. In that respect this is a practical argument about how some of us should apportion limited resources of time and energy over the next period.

    Fourthly, if we don’t, you can be sure that those who are have ideas you won’t be crazy on. Tor is now being adopted by corporations, so not using it is starting to put us behind. Rightwing libertarians are digital natives – you can be sure that they will be at the cutting edge on this stuff, and that they will overlap with the racist Right. So this is in part organisation for self-defence. The state-society ensemble founded with the spread of the printing press, central banking, postal communications etc in the 16-17th century is coming apart across our lifetime, as new comms technologies render its forms filleted. The state is massively extending its powers on the basis of risk minimisation – ie its total surveillance model assumes that many people are taking action to limit their exposure to routine surveillance. To not take action is to leave oneself uniquely exposed.

    Fifthly, we need to be able to talk to the hackerati on their terms, and infuse some material political analysis into a movement that has a default setting of masculinist, neurobiological elitist atomisation. That latter position arises in part – only in part – because such people have simply never been exposed to a different way of looking at the world.

    Sixthly we need to challenge our own complacency, apprehension about a changing game, nostalgic attachment to the now superseded world of twentieth-century modernity as the field of action, and face a world revolutionised in our lifetime.

    So whether one feels that the prospect of mass action is in the future, or there is less likelihood of such, the case for becoming at home in the digital world.

    That’s all i’m sayin’.


    • Seems to me that there’s a bunch of different arguments here, though, some of with which I can agree, some of which I think are overstated and some of which seem to me quite destructive.
      Yes, having more people on the Left who can code would be useful (hi, Benjamin!). But there’s all sorts of talents of which we could make use, if the movement was more viable. Having more people with decent layout skills would be useful. Having more good musicians would be a step forward (Woody Guthrie: ‘where three communists meet, the fourth ought to be a guitar player’). Christ, having more decent writers would be a good thing.
      I am not diminishing the importance of any of these by saying i don’t see theme as crucial, in the way Guy seems to think coding is. TBH, in some respects, the more specialised the industry becomes, the less useful learning the very basics become. It’s more important that most of us have some sense of how to employ social media than it is we know how to make our own social media networks.
      Again, I think there’s a tendency here to move from the political to the technical. Theorising the uses and limitations of social media is, IMO, more important than all becoming coders.
      Then there’s the question about encryption.
      Guy says we should use Tor because it’s the equivalent of putting a letter in an envelope rather than using a postcard. Again, I am not trying to belittle the significance of coding technologies, in certain circumstances. If you’re a journalist protecting your source, if you are a lawyer with a confidential brief: in cases like that, yes, of course you should make use of encryption.
      But Guy’s example is itself revealing. Actually, letters in envelopes are not particularly secure precisely because the Left has been under something very close to total surveillance for a long, long time.
      Let me give a concrete example.
      One of the few spectacular successes of the Australian Left in recent times came at S11 in 2000 (God, so long ago!). In the lead-up to that demonstration, the group to which I belonged received an influx of recruits, some of whom subsequently revealed themselves (by inadvertently using police credit cards, etc) as undercover agents. The other groups all reported similar stories. I heard subsequently from a former policeman that the main organising meetings of the S11 Coalition (or whatever it was called) were attended by representatives of three different agencies. I know less about the autonomist groups that played a role in that protest but no doubt things were similar there. It’s not exactly difficult to infiltrate activist meetings: you just need a few youngish people vaguely familiar with the particular subculture and you are in.
      In those main meetings, all the plans for the protest itself were discussed. If the attending cops wanted to know about finances or plans for direct action or what the posters were going to say, all they had to do was attend the relevant subcommittee. Likewise for the activities of the constituent organisations: as far as I know, they all talked about their plans in their internal meetings, which were undoubtedly attended by police or ASIO or whoever.
      My question is, then, what difference would today’s total surveillance have made? Back then, using phone taps and bugs in the rooms and old-fashioned infiltration, there would have been almost nothing about those protests that wasn’t known in advance. I mean that quite literally. If the state was confused, it was only because the Left was confused — I later heard an anecdote that the agents in the main meetings briefly wondered if the meetings were being disrupted by other infiltrators because they couldn’t believe how fractious and quarrelsome the Left actually was.
      Likewise, would it have been a step forward if organisers back then had been more secret? We could, perhaps, have kept plans confidential by, say, closing the organising meetings to anyone other than a very small number of people who could all vouch for each other. But what would that have achieved?
      Actually, the protests were a success precisely because they were open, they were democratic and they encouraged everyone and anyone who wanted to come. Because the demonstration touched a chord, because the slogans resonated with lots and lots of ordinary people, all the sneaky secret agent stuff amounted to nothing.
      That’s why I think this debate matters. It seems to me that Guy’s orientation pushes in precisely the wrong way, that the Left already has a tendency to be cliquey and inaccessible and self-obsessed, that it needs to be more open rather than less. IMO, the focus on security, etc, is reminiscent of seventies Maoism, where it was quite disastrous: because of all their cloak and dagger stuff, the groups became impenetrable to ordinary people but, of course, were riddled with spies and informers, who thrive in those kind of conditions.
      I don’t think I’m nostalgic for the past but to me these are not the most important debates. As I said before, surely the bigger question coming out of PRISM is about how the Left relates to Obama — it’s astonishing watching Democrats twist and turn to explain how these programs (like the drone strikes) are actually double-plus good. Similarly, rather than focussing on how to outwit the state, surely we first need to clarify how the Left theorises the state (the inability to do which was one of the big problems with both the anti-corporate movement and, more recently, Occupy).

    • “leave your cool smartphone used to twtpic wittily captioned hipster selfies from Zuccotti ground zero at a friend’s house”

      Compare that idea with Malcolm Harris’s narrative of his use of Twitter through OWS and subsequent minor judicial proceedings against him, or the important pics currently emanating from Taksim Square on social media.

      Which is it to be? Leave your phone behind, or definitely take it with you?

      It’s clear enough that smartphones need to be present at the scene of protest, but material that gets onto major social networks must be anonymised. Certainly the sender needs to be anonymous, and increasingly the redaction of activist’s faces from photographs is desirable.

      People engaging in civil disobedience also need to be aware that at any public event, any citizen could photograph them and upload the photo to a social network, with the unintended result of that photograph passing through a face recognition filter and the results being circulated to intelligence agencies within minutes.

  5. ‘“This was the revolution, the breach, the moment…when the so-called minorities became the majority, when the country started to take its founding documents at their word – that this is a place where all men (sic) are created equal. They plugged this radical impulse into the political structures, and look what came out. The routing of the old class, packing up their resentment like a cheap concertina, and skulking home.”

    Guy I wonder if you still stick by this description of the US taking its founding documents at their word when it is a Democratic Presidency that has overseen this mass surveillance program and the co-ordinated disruption of the Occupy movement?

  6. Dave

    Tor was developed by the US Navy. It has been repurposed by a network of people led by Jacob Appelbaum. The history of how it became ‘liberated’ from Navy use was well-documented.

    Can’t recall where I wrote the above bit you quote, but I suspect I was talking about the grassroots who worked for an Obama victory – many with few illusions about the limits of a Presidency – rather than the leadership itself. I never had any illusions that Obama would continue to run the American empire. Nor that he would continue to run the PATRIOT Act. But I underplayed the degree to which the Empire reaches back into the Republic.

  7. Let me state some propositions as simply as possibly

    The minimal argument on secure communication:

    A1 – in any given project it is better to have access to secure communications than not to have.

    A2 – all the more so with political projects that dissent, discuss the legitimacy of power, civil disobedience etc

    A3 – standard email programmes, social media etc, is not secure, and is far less secure than smailmail was

    A4 – the shift from snailmail to remote email/social media disguised a reduction in security that we have now been alerted to

    A5 – this surveillance is total, automated and grows in power as it proceeds. The analogy with surveillance of left activities in the snailmail era is quite false. They couldn’t read every letter for ‘potential’ subversion, dissent, ‘extremism’ or pre-crime. Now they can, in an automatic fashion.

    A6 – Tor and a number of other services offer far more secure communication, are relatively easy to use with a little training, and can be propagated in a mass fashion. They’re not an elite or specialised technique, any more than photoshop is. Furthermore the security of use does not diminish with propagation

    A7 – they restore a baseline level of privacy and security that had been lost in the digital shift

    A8 – corporations, police forces, and right wing groups are starting to use them, so they gain a security advantage against the non-secure

    A9 – therefore, it would be a good thing for left/progressive groups to develop a knowledge and familiarity with secure, or more exactly significantly less insecure – systems and begin to employ and propagate them.

    The more extended case on secure communication:

    B1 – any mass movement has leadership, core groups, etc etc. The creation of larger movements out of smaller ones demands best attempts at secure communication, non-infiltration for the purpose of being able to organise.

    B2 – that process can be prevented – as can the mirror process of a stable movement forming out of a sudden uprising – by disruption permitted by breached security.

    B3 – one possible explanation as to why you have to go back to the millennial anti-capitalist movement to find a success may be because the failure of the Occupy movement to develop was because so many of its leaders were picked off using the mega-surveillance tools I’m talking about.

    B4 – I think this is highly debatable, but the emphasis is on debatable, not instantly rejectable. Such movements always have leadership groups, even if there are multiple overlapping projects and networks. The ability to co-ordinate action demands some security of communication. If I’ve overemphasised that possibility in the past (and it’s far from the only reason i’m suggesting), I think you are rejecting the possibility, and offering an alternative one – though im not fully clear on what that is – not based on evidence, but on inclination and desire.

    B5 – at some level, the extended case is the simple one. Leaving your smart phone at home so you cant be tracked is the same as leaving your documents or your address book at home if you think you’re going to be arrested. Having the capacity to communicate securely is the same as a leadership group not announcing the exact details of a civil disobedient action until shortly before it is to occur. These are common tactics, and I’m simply arguing that the absence of these at a cyber level may have had a material effect, and adopting them at that level plain strategic common sense

    B6 – So the idea that such techniques lead to clandestinity and cultishness is the reverse of what I’m suggesting. As I said in my reply, the desire is to spread these relatively simply techniques, so that they become part of cyber-literacy. How can that be going in a cliquey direction? The in/out structure of Maoism and other forms of Marxism came from a positivist idea of social/historical Truth, that created a pseudo-religious process.

    Coding and Theory

    C1 – The coding i’m speaking of isn’t terribly specialised. Seems to me theorising information society, social media etc would be assisted by some knowledge of the nuts and bolts. The distinctive form of it is that its fully material practice is also a fully intellectual practice, so there’s a more complex relationship between theorising the whole and understanding the parts of it, than, say, I dunno, steelmilling (which still benefits from some practical knowledge of it, but not an extended engagement. But I dont think the very nature of the global comms system we currently live trough can be adequately understood without a greater more distributed knowledge of how it works). In that respect, yes we need to theorise of course – but with some meta-theoretical understanding that it is the default setting of interpretive humanists, a habitus presenting itself as a Truth.

  8. Guy I think you make some helpful commonsense suggestions for activists today however your argument is weakened considerably by claiming Occupy disintegrated because its leaders were picked off. Occupy subsided because of its internal politics, its insistence on consensus decision making, its hostility (at least in Melbourne) to the established far Left, its refusal and/or inability to make links with the organised working class as represented by their unions and most off all by their point blank refusal to articulate a basic set of demands and that masses of people could mobilise behind.
    That is to say, the leaders were picked off because when it came to the crunch, its internal politics were fragmented and weak.

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