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[liberationtech] Sociological studies of covert mass-surveillance organisations

Asa Rossoff asa at
Mon Sep 2 02:41:37 PDT 2013

Caspar Bowden (lists) wrote:
> On 09/01/13 21:49, Michael Rogers wrote:
>> Is there anyone who's aware of overt surveillance and who doesn't at
>> least suspect that some form of covert surveillance also exists? And
>> isn't that suspicion enough to create a panoptic effect?
> to some *unconscious* extent yes, but I have never seen any 
> psychological studies into this. There ought to be an effect where even 
> "solid citizens" become inhibited from communicating (or thinking! much 
> harder experiment) certain ideas, depending on the level of "ambient 

Speaking of mind control in the authoritarian, possibly panoptic context, in
speaking to a couple of ordinary-seeming college-age city kids in a large,
well known, largely industrial, regime in recent years (over telephone and
unencrypted online communications, such as VOIP and instant messaging, which
admittedly with the prospect of surveillance could effect what they would
say), I wanted to get to know them and their world view.  They happily
talked about their family life and their career aspirations, and their city
and environs, and whether they'd traveled (very little within their own
country and happily explained to me how and why it was nearly impossible for
them to leave the country).  They had a kind of patriotic pride in their
local industry.  But I wanted to get to know how they thought... what their
opinions were... philisophically, religiously, spiritually, and politically.
I was stonewalled on those topics by the couple of (independent) young
people I talked to.  They were willing to hear my thoughts and views, but
not really to respond to them.  When pressed, I really upset one of them,
and in both cases was told that they have no political views.  The one who
got upset said "that only leads to unhappiness" (or was it "trouble"?).

At the same time, I've found something interesting with instant messaging
over the years. If I have a public profile and am online, I get periodic
random contacts from people around the world reaching out.  These people
have been mostly from more authoritarian countries with minor contact with
the outside world.  A surprising number from countries with hardly any
internet access (those people had some amount of privelege, obviously, and
often contacted me from shared public terminals at some cost).  So there is
this desire to reach out to the world, to connect, to participate, to have
access to information, but in some cases simultaniously continued denial of
holding philosophies, and in particular, political opinions.

> NSA-phobia", and this indeed might function as a form of social control. 
> Never seen any studies on that idea. [Of course the STASI and others 
> would make the surveillance obvious for the purpose of intimidation as a 
> standard tactic in particular cases, but in general the watchers don't 
> want the watched to know true capabilities]
> However on the face of it, that isn't the classical Panopticon, where 
> discipline is maintained by fear of detection by the unseen warden
>> The prisoners don't know whether they're being watched at any moment,
>> or whether the watchtower is even occupied; the secret surveillance
>> organisation, the existence of which cannot be confirmed, corresponds
>> to the warden who may or may not be in the watchtower.
> Yes, absolutely, but I don't think NSA wanted that, although a grimly 
> conspiratorial interpretation of current events is that it is a vast 
> planned PR gambit to effect transition to a global neo-Panoptic society, 
> after all civil libertarians have exhausted themselves in protest...

Although I doubt that much of the way things have been playing out in the US
re. the NSA and with encryption providers was calculated in advance, it does
seem possible that some actions taken as this all unfolded were done in part
to enhance a culture of fear and to stifle freedom of expression.

Luckily, there is more public criticism in the U.S. and elsewhere around the
world now than during Bush Jr.'s leadup to the second Iraq war, where media
and the public fell in line so neatly and quickly it would seem Bush could
have---should he have chosen---followed the example of the Nazis.  It was
part of the same playbook.  And Jr. being famously uncharismatic and
inarticulate (whether that was partly staged or not) didn't seem to put much
of a damper on the freezing-effect on all major and most minor media outlets
and the greater part of the populace.  As a man, I give Jr. the benefit of
the doubt, and assume he was just lacking in wisdom.  That is not so
important to me in any case.  What was frightening for me was the
susceptibility of the media, the public, the Congress, and the judiciary to
control, and the ease in which rule of law was lost to a large degree.

I believe people get wiser over the generations, and that democracy, still
relatively new, especially in widespread popularity, can work well.  But no
matter the form of governance, it requires vigilence of the people to
maintain it in their interests, and there are many faults in the
implementation of democracy even in the best functioning ones that lead to
entrenched concentrations of power.

Economic systems are as influential as governance systems, and there are
often conflicts of public interest between the two.

The purpose of societies is essentially, at least, for people to be able to
live in peace together, necessarily having some shared destiny.  And with
over 7 billion people now, the rise of capitalism, industrialization, and
incredible communications advancements, the planet is getting socially
smaller.  We have immense human resources, and our destinies are becoming
ever-more linked with each other.  A lot is changing socially everywhere in
the world now, and there are several power interests at play (when put
simply): rulers, money handlers, and people.  The first two players are
anything but complacent, and more and more individuals are becoming less
complacent... that is how I see the state of things in terms of
power/ownership/empowerment.  The immediate outcomes in a time of great
change like this I do not see clearly.  It depends on the choices people
make.  And a few individuals can sometimes have extraordinary influence.

This list is called "liberationtech", and those participating here are
important influences, and I thank you.


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