Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Outsourcing espionage


In the light of recent developments, including the vast trove of NSA documents downloaded by Booz Allen employee Edward Snowden, and the revelation from those documents that the US has been systematically violating its treaty obligations by spying on the SWIFT international financial transactions system, some comments by Janine Wedel in her book Shadow Elite take on new significance:

Through SWIFT the US Treasury Department sought and gained access to large numbers of financial and communications records. Treasury then established the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, run out of the CIA, to analyze the SWIFT data and later shared it with the CIA and FBI. It also hired Booz Allen as an “independent” auditor, which, along with SWIFT, reviewed Treasury’s logs of information searches… As Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project, put it: “It is bad enough that the administration is trying to hold out a private company as a substitute for genuine checks and balances on its surveillance activities. But of all companies to perform audits on a secret surveillance program, it would be difficult to find one less objective and more intertwined with the US government security establishment.”

To sum up that interaction: A private company, given “government” access to sensitive and private data about citizens of the United States and other countries, not only worked alongside government to analyze the data, but then also (supposedly) oversaw the process.

Is there any surprise, then, that the self-watching watcher had no safeguards in place to prevent a newly hired employee from walking off with all these super-secret data?

There have always been those who have claimed that capitalism is inimical to tyranny. Usually some ideological affinity between capitalism and democracy, or in a practical sense that tyranny is bad for business, which depends on the initiative of many well-informed independent actors (rather in the same way that European economic integration in the early 20th century made war self-defeating for the economic elites, hence impossible; or, so it was argued). But maybe there is some truth to this claim in the Leninist sense: When we come to hang the capitalists, they will bid on the contract for the rope. Given opportunity to accumulate vast secret power through spying, or to make vast profits by outsourcing the espionage, at the risk of exposing the secret government, American elites couldn’t resist the lure of the cash. Stalin would never have made that mistake.

I suspect that Stalin would have done very well on the marshmallow test, for what it’s worth.

 

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