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[liberationtech] IGP Blog :: Technology as symbol: Is resistance to surveillance technology being misdirected?

Edward Nanno elnanno at
Thu Dec 29 11:55:45 PST 2011

I'm sitting here with Milton at a coffee shop  in Syracuse.  Shall I raise these issues with him?


Edward Nanno, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Wireless Grid Lab
Center for Convergence and Emerging Network Technologies
School of Information Studies
205 Hinds Hall
From: liberationtech-bounces at [liberationtech-bounces at] on behalf of Evgeny Morozov [evgeny.morozov at]
Sent: Thursday, December 29, 2011 10:11 AM
To: Stanford tech list List
Subject: Re: [liberationtech] IGP Blog :: Technology as symbol: Is resistance to surveillance technology being misdirected?

My problems with Milton Mueller's argument are manifold:

1. I'd argue there is no "budding movement" engaged in "resistance" to "surveillance technology"; Mueller is attacking strawmen here. There are a) reporters who are interested in how and why some Western companies keep breaking the export laws (would we prefer them not to report on such stuff, even if the laws are stupid?) b) technology activists who oppose much of this technology in principle, regardless of whether it's used in democracies or autocracies c) politicians, NGOs and activists - many of them dedicated to a particular issue (e.g., free speech or corporate social responsibility) or country (e.g. Iran) who see surveillance trade as an opportunity to advance their own agenda and attract media attention to whatever cause they are fighting.  Yes, there are moments when agendas of all these groups overlap but to treat this as a movement that somehow aims to ban these tools instead of addressing foreign policy issues to me seems unfair. Yes, there is always a danger of succumbing to techno-fetishism, of assuming that "fixing internet freedom agenda" = "fixing freedom agenda" (didn't someone write a book about it?) but I'm yet to see anyone involved with surveillance trade posit anything along these lines. As has already been pointed out on this list, people who actually go to these fairs and get us all these wonderful corporate brochures are on the record as fierce critics US foreign policy (which may explain their occasional travel problems!). I also think it's a bit misguided to expect people concerned with CSR and making sure that tech companies behave ethically to switch careers midstream and become critics of US foreign policy; these are not mutually exclusive pursuits but I don't know why we should deny validity to one of them.

2. I think that Mueller himself misdirects his anger; the root of the problem is in US domestic policy towards surveillance, it's not in its foreign policy. But to backtrack a bit: the technologies that are up for export go far beyond DPI (see this list by Bugged Plant - Many of them are actually single purpose, despite all the hot rhetoric on this list - and yes, many of them do look like weapons to me. (Well, some are in theory dual purpose if you count fighting terrorism from, say, Saudi Arabia or Tehran a valid government activity). So if one really wants to do something about them, one has to inquire about why there is demand for such tools among Western law enforcement agencies, how it all ties to FBI's Going Dark problem, FBI's plans for CALEA-2, and so forth. (I touched upon some of these issues in my keynote at 28C3 two days ago). To imagine that we can kill the market in these tools if we can only straighten the US policy on Saudi Arabia (good luck on that front) seems naive to me. I'll concede that the media coverage did not get into the domestic angle - but it's an opportunity for the future. Media-wise, the big task ahead is to actually making local media - newspapers in Italy, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Israel, etc - excited about this narrative, so that they can chase both local suppliers and the extent to which these companies first came into being thanks to domestic demand.

3. I take issue with the anti-regulation skepticism  (defeatism?) expressed both by Mueller and others on this list. Yes, some sanctions are too broad and they end up hurting ordinary uses but it's not a given that ordinary users will be hurt if the new sanctions are kept narrow and target individual companies and actually learn from the unintended consequences of earlier rounds of sanctions on Syria and Iran. No one is arguing that sanctions will solve the problem; they will only raise the costs (btw, this WaPo article<> quotes a State Department rep saying exactly this - no one is starry-eyed about the effectiveness of sanctions). Likewise, I am not fully convinced that requiring tech companies to a) verify where their gear is used b) turn it off if it's used in Syria or Iran or Country X is such a terrible idea. What's the argument against? That a bunch of hackers will break into, say, Jordan's censorship system and turn off the country's Internet filtering system remotely? Well, great - let's celebrate. Similarly, I don't think that requiring Western tech companies to verify that the gear they sell is used in the countries where it's been shipped to (by checking IP addresses, for example) somehow constitutes pervasive surveillance. And even if it does, what's so bad about watching a bunch of authoritarian governments? I understand that Mueller's cyberlibertarian philosophy does not allow for any censorship or surveillance, no matter how beneficial, but I'm not sold on this in the context of tools sold to dictators.

4. I'll be the first to acknowledge that some of the media reports on surveillance trade have been a) populist and anti-corporatist b) technologically illiterate (DPI in Israel was a good example of this) c) lazy (Bloomberg, in particular, has a soft spot for quoting the same set of people). And yet compared where we were in 2010 or 2009 - with all the silly reporting about "Twitter Revolutions" in Iran - that's still a sea change (for the better) in media coverage. Next frontier for Bloomberg, WSJ and others is to make a more explicit connection to why these tools are made in the first place, thus linking foreign policy to very mundane issues of domestic surveillance.

So those are just a few of my problems with Mueller's argument.


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