Spying and Security

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The US government’s recent embarrassment over revelations of its surveillance program by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor/CIA employee, and their subsequent frustration in trying to apprehend him, has led to all of the usual outcry from libertarians about government spying, invasion of privacy and so on. However, a further interesting question is whether such acts are a necessary part of the deliverance of security. Would, for example, private security agencies have the need to spy on people’s private communications and, if so, how would this be regulated in a free society?

Security, like any other good, is an end that consumes scarce resources and its provision must therefore be valued like any other. Because a state is as an institution that enforces a territorial monopoly of the provision of law, order and defence funded by compulsory levies (taxes), it needs to provide a blanket security service and need never worry about “customers” leaving it for a competing service. As a result it is cut off from any communication, through the profit and loss system, of whether it has correctly allocated resources efficiently to provide for security needs and so it, alone, needs to judge the urgency of a particular security threat. This would not be the case on the free market, however, as private, competing, security agencies would not be able to apportion more resources towards the production of security than its customers were willing to pay for. In times, therefore, of relatively light or transient threats and normal, one-off acts of crime by individuals then security will not be a high priority and intelligence, which is linked almost wholly to such crime would have little purpose as there would simply be no data to gather. Indeed this would normally be the case in a free society. Most “organised” crime consists of the underground provision of peaceful and voluntary services that the government has outlawed and “terrorist” threats are political backlashes against the government. Even if there was the threat of invasion of a free society by, say, a neighbouring state, this would be much harder for that state to accomplish when defence provision is scattered and heterogeneous rather than concentrated and homogenous in the form of the government’s army, navy and air force. The closest you might get to any kind of organisation in crime in a free society is various forms of human trafficking, such as paedophile rings and kidnap for forced labour. It is therefore very unlikely that there would be the need for systematic intelligence gathering in a world free of the state. However, for arguments sake, let’s say that there is a genuinely serious and imminent threat of organised crime which commands a pressing need for intelligence of this threat by a private security agency in order to defend its customers. What could it do?

A security agency could certainly not invade the servers and networks of private providers of communication services. It could, however, negotiate contracts to monitor information that passes over these networks, with the specific nature of such monitoring subject to the corresponding nature of the threat. But the major difference between this and between government intelligence gathering is that it could never be secret and, if it was, it would be unlikely to last for long. From the point of view of the security providers’ customers, in an environment where there is a genuine threat then such monitoring is likely to be a selling point; while it may not be advertised quite as explicitly as “we will read other people’s emails to keep you safe”, if people, on balance, estimate any threat as being worth the while of this kind of action then they will be eager to provide custom to those security services that can offer it. On the other hand, if a threat is deemed not to be quite so serious to the extent that customers either do not care if other people’s communications are monitored or they would actively leave for an alternative provider to avoid it, could a security firm carry on the practice in secret? The answer is almost certainly no because this would cause the firm to incur costs that customers are not willing to pay for. Hence it would have to raise its prices. Such a firm would therefore see its customer base shrink to the advantage of suppliers who do not incur these deadweight costs. The practice would therefore be self-liquidating at the point when threats are no longer deemed to be worthy of the expense of intelligence gathering.

Furthermore, the monitoring of communications would need to have the consent of the customers of telecoms and internet providers. Again, the permissibility of this would be judged by these customers in the light the urgency of a threat. In the absence of such threats providers that do not invade the privacy of communications would receive custom and those that do would not. Moreover, in this environment, people themselves may be unwilling to deal with parties whose communications were not filtered through a monitored channel. But these services would also be tailored to specific regions that may be under threat or levels of monitoring could be targeted at specific groups based on their vulnerability or their propensity to commit an atrocity. There would not be the blanket monitoring of absolutely everybody and the provision of the same service to everybody regardless of who they are and where they are.

Would consent make intelligence gathering useless? Not necessarily. Between themselves, of course, criminals can use channels that are not subject to monitoring. But when the fear of a threat is perceived to be high channels offering absolute privacy would be difficult to come by and it is arguably the case that government is much easier to circumvent than private agencies. However, all criminal organisations must at some point communicate with the outside world (for purposes of supply, for example) and these latter communications would be subject to monitoring. While not perfect, therefore, it would not be impossible to piece together the movements and intentions of organised criminals.

The above is just a basic outline of what might happen in a free society and no doubt many more considerations could be added. But it is worth emphasising again the main point – that most of the need for intelligence gathering is generated by the government’s own avoidable acts and so, why it could conceivably be accomplished in a free society, it would almost certainly be unnecessary. The proper way forward, then, to end the world of spying, surveillance and secrets is to decriminalise victimless crimes and to stop the government from invading and bombing other countries and nurturing blowback. And we have of course assumed above that government is genuinely trying to protect its citizens; of great import also is the very convincing argument that government merely invents and exaggerates bogeymen for the very purpose of intruding into people’s lives and we need to consider the extent to which surveillance is the end rather than the means.

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One Law for All

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One of the obfuscating features of sociological discourse, whether this is in academic tomes or in journalistic articles, is the tendency to describe their subject matter in terms of vast, overreaching abstractions. “The market” does X, “the government” does Y, “companies” do Z and so on. Such categorisations are not, of course, unimportant; the use of shorthand is needed to quickly and clearly identify particular groups of individuals who each bear a common feature; however, that is precisely what is lost – that all of them are nothing more than nouns for “groups of individuals” – when use of these abstractions is taken too far. Such use becomes particularly meaningless when one starts to ascribe to these groups particular characteristics that are independent of those of the individual participants, as if the group itself is some kind of living, thinking entity. So we are always told that “markets” are “wild”, “capricious,” “erratic”, “reckless”, “selfish” and imbibed with, what is quickly becoming a clichéd term, “irrational exuberance”. “The government”, on the other hand, is always “wise”, “prudent”, “far sighted”, “selfless” and “serving”. But both of these groups are still populated by the same type of human – living, breathing, thinking, desiring, choosing and acting. Only an examination of the precise motivations and the outlets for their expression that individual humans gain from becoming a member of one of these groups can one hope to understand their true nature.

One of the most serious misunderstandings to which this type of thinking – in terms of bland abstractions – leads is the idea that “government” is somehow endowed with a different set of moral rules from every other group. We all know that theft is wrong, whatever the circumstance. Whoever you are in life, rich, poor, fat, thin, smart or stupid, every person can only gain the property of another by offering him something that he values in voluntary exchange; in short, he must offer him a valuable service. Taking property that belongs to another person is almost universally condemned as immoral. Members of the “government” however do not have to follow this rule, at least when acting in their “official” capacity. These people not have to offer anyone a valuable service in return for its revenue, they can simply take what they need to fund their ventures, i.e. whatever they want rather than what the person from whom they are taking the money wants. No private citizen is morally permitted to kill another humans being, whether this is for either personal or political gain. In the first instance he would be called a “murderer” and in the latter a “terrorist” (another very opaque abstraction). Yet those who populate the government, when they launch their foreign wars of imperialism, when they kill thousands of innocent civilians in drone strikes, when they blockade “rogue” states and starve its children to death, are permitted to do this with seemingly little question. Whether it is a good idea for the government to do these things is, of course, hotly debated but the moral right of the government to carry out these acts if it so decides is something that receives far less attention.

To further obfuscate the criminal nature of government we apply different names to everything that it does from that which private criminals do. So whereas private citizens “steal” and “rob” in order to gain “booty” (or the more formal “stolen goods”), the government “taxes” in order to gain “revenue”. Whereas private citizens are, as we have said, “murderers” or “terrorists”, the government is a “peacekeeper” or “spreader of democracy”. Yet what essentially is the difference between the clearly immoral acts that are committed by private citizens and the supposedly “moral” acts that are committed by members of the government? If you are an innocent civilian does it really make much difference to you whether you are killed in an armed robbery or whether you hit by a drone? Both groups – the private citizenry and the government – are populated not by devils and angels respectively but by humans endowed with the same qualities of rationality, intelligence and emotional disposition. All actions are initiated by one of these individuals or by individuals who choose to act in concert. An action that is therefore immoral for a private citizen is, therefore, immoral for a government citizen. Theft is the deliberate appropriation of property belonging to another without that person’s consent. How are “taxes” to be distinguished from this? Taxes are deliberately taken; the property belongs to another; and it is certainly taken without that person’s consent. For if taxes are truly voluntary then refusal to pay them would not land one in jail. Launching any kind of offensive, foreign war (that is already paid for with tax loot) that kills innocent civilians is indistinguishable from murder. Why does the fact that those who commit these atrocities in the government’s name, wear government-issued costumes, have a clear hierarchical structure, and wave and salute flags with pomp and circumstance, let them off the hook? The SS had all of these things – why are they considered a criminal organisation yet modern armies, navies and air forces are not? It appears that this question is hardly unique to our time, as St Augustine penetratingly reveals:

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor”.1

The idea that all of these immoral, government acts are legitimated by democracy is no justification. For what is true for the one is, in general, true for the many. If no one person can, alone, steal or murder then it does not follow that a group of people may, together, steal or murder. Further, if I have no right to steal or murder then neither can my so-called “representative” derive this right from my endorsement of his candidacy in an election.

If all of this, the whole division of morality in society, this separation into two distinct moral castes, wasn’t bad enough, it is made far worse by its sickening decoration and honour with the rhetoric of “public service” and “selflessness”. Theft and murder makes little difference to the victim whether it’s done by a saint or sinner, by a Samaritan or sadist. The whole cloud of altruistic verbage is designed to, again, obscure the fact that government is populated by exactly the same type of human being as the rest of society – they will attempt to further their own ends with the means available to them, and if immoral means are legitimated then they will most certainly take advantage of them. Even if we assume that they genuinely seek “good” ends and are thoroughly convinced of the “morality” of their position, it has often been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions; indeed, the Soviet Union, the political system that butchered tens of millions, was created and fostered by those who believed that what they were doing was right. But this is before you get into the very convincing argument that government – the sphere where it is permissible to behave immorally – attracts the very people who relish to behave in such a manner for its own sake.

Libertarians believe in a basic morality that is uniform to all people – that all people, King or subject, employer or employee, rich or poor, fat or thin, are subject to the same cardinal moral rule, namely that you can do whatever you want with your own person and property so long as it does not inflict violence on the person or property of anyone else. No exceptions. The actions of all human beings need to be examined in regard to this moral truth and no excuses are derived from being a member of a certain caste. The basic fact that individual humans, their motivations, choices and ends are central to everything that happens in this world, cannot be hidden by abstractions, sociological inventions, metaphysical nonsense, traditions, ranks, ceremonies, patriotic songs, flags and so on. Libertarians need to do the best they can to unmask the truth behind these illusions.

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1St Augustine, City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4.