“I can neither confirm nor deny the name of a hypothetical programme” – How to avoid talking about surveillance.

*** Characters and events in this blog post are one hundred percent real and resemblance with any fictional persons is purely coincidental.***


Let’s try something we have never tried before. Let’s not talk about surveillance. Let’s avoid talking about it at all cost. Both the arguably legitimate, targeted kind that is subject to the rule of law and meaningful oversight (because that’s secret and anyway, it probably doesn’t exist) and the other kind. That is the indiscriminate, untargeted mass kind, subject to minimum or no oversight at all. The kind that Edward Snowden blew the whistle on and the lid off.

Edward Snowden. Damn him. He is a major problem. He wants to talk about surveillance all the time. And he wants everyone else to talk about it too. Because he thinks people should know about “what is done in their name and that which is done against them,” so they can have a public debate. I know, right? A public debate about something that no one’s supposed to know about. Well done, Snowden! Who is that clown anyway?

Some hacker who never finished school and now lives in Moscow. Yeah, exactly! Probably works for the Russians! Probably has worked for the Russians all along. Specifically cultivated by them to commit all sorts of shenanigans on Vlad Putin’s behalf!


Rule #1 when avoiding surveillance talk: always discredit the leaker

Problem with that Ed Snowden is: some people are actually listening to him! They want to join in the debate! So to avoid talking about surveillance one thing we must do is make sure that people start questioning Snowden. His motives, his personality, the lot. Well, we cannot bloody well kill him, can we? Even though some people have been saying that killing him is the one thing they would really like to do. US Congressman Mike Rogers has even suggested it might be the best thing to do in the name of justice, while former CIA director James Woolsey insists that Snowden should be “hanged” if convicted of treason.

But no, let’s not to that. It does seem a tad medieval. We might turn him into some Robin Hood type figure. No, let’s discredit him instead. People love talking about personality. So let’s draw as much attention to Edward Snowden’s personality as we can. Let’s question his honesty, his sanity if we have to. Many government officials have already shown us how that’s done. For example Mike Rogers keeps saying that Snowden is a traitor. So let’s insist that if Snowden was sincere – as opposed to a “traitor” and a “coward” and a “spy”– he would “come home” to the US and “face the music”. We could even offer to personally pay for his plane ticket. Snowden’s friends, lawyers, and disciples (aka Snowdenites) will argue of course that there is no public interest defence for people charged under the Espionage Act and that therefore Snowden would not be allowed to make his case in front of a jury of his peers. But that’s just nit picking.

Calling Snowden arrogant could also work. Or we could suggest his will end up a drunk, lonely and unhappy and bored. Whatever you say, just make sure people are too preoccupied with Snowden himself to pay much attention to what he has revealed and Bob’s your uncle. And don’t tell anyone his girlfriend is now living with him! Domestic bliss doesn’t fit the picture we’re trying to paint here! Discrediting Snowden is mandatory when avoiding talking about what’s wrong with government and the intelligence agencies surveillance.


Rule #2 when avoiding surveillance talk: always use semantics

However, it won’t work on everyone. People like, I don’t know, Privacy International, Liberty, the EFF, Amnesty International or those dumbasses at WikiLeaks will probably still want to talk about surveillance. So confound them. Use semantic acrobatics. That usually works to appease people. Here is some reassuring lingo you can use:

  • Surveillance: tell people that they aren’t subject to surveillance, because we aren’t listening to their calls, only accessing their metadata. They won’t really get that this means we’re “access[ing] all the data about who [they] talk to, where [they] are and what [they] do”.
  • Relevant: tell people that we only collect “relevant” data. Don’t tell them that this means “[e]verything. It might become relevant in the future, thus it’s relevant today.”
  • Inadvertent: tell people that we may have accidentally done something when really “we did [it] on purpose on a massive scale”.
  • Without a warrant; tell people, we never collect their data without a warrant. This means the opposite.
  • External communications: tell people we never monitor the communications of people inside our own countries. Do not tell them that this excludes people in our own countries when they are communicating with someone outside the country or via a server that is located outside the country (think Facebook chat).
  • No: when asked if we collect information on innocent people in bulk, always say no, even though this is a lie. In truth, no “means “fuck you.””

For further inspiration, I recommend a dictionary of what officials are really saying.


Rule #3 when avoiding surveillance talk: always insist that everything’s legal

Granted, semantics might not fool the lawyers or linguists among the human rights and civil liberties crowd but they will have a hard time proving that anyone who wants to talk about that they’re being surveilled has legal standing anyway. We can always pull the classified information card.

We might also want to consider changing legislation, like our friends in Oz. They have basically outlawed whistleblowing and a free press. Or the Americans. They prosecute whistleblowers so aggressively, government employees are increasingly afraid of speaking out.

The Germans are currently trying to curb parliamentary oversight and surveillance talk. Bless them, they have a lot to learn. But they’re still haunted by their Stasi past so cut them some slack. Especially because their foreign intelligence agency has a marvellous programme with access to a massive fibreoptic node in Frankfurt AND satellite networks. Satellite companies’ CEOs are all under surveillance. You should have seen the look on their faces when they found out! And anyway, there are operatives inside all major telcos. And the telcos are quite happy to pass on information, even in excess of what’s legally required. Oops, perhaps I shouldn’t have said that. That’s another lawsuit in the making right there. I am guessing Privacy International, Liberty and Amnesty International. They’re currently banging on about data sharing between the agencies and how it’s helping us sidestep legal restrictions. Sidestep being the operative term, guys, not violate. See what I did there? Semantics.

So people like Eric King from Privacy International may argue something along the lines of:

We now know that data from any call, internet search, or website you visited over the past two years could be stored in GCHQ’s database and analysed at will, all without a warrant to collect it in the first place.  It is outrageous that the Government thinks mass surveillance, justified by secret “arrangements” that allow for vast and unrestrained receipt and analysis of foreign intelligence material is lawful.

Here’s one for you, Mr King: it’s lawful because we say it is. We’re not going to argue the point with you:

It is a longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters. Furthermore, all of [our] work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight.

Good luck proving that one wrong. It’s all secret, so fat chance of proving anything at all without touching on classified information, and anyway: the general public mostly don’t give a shit. They go all cross eyed when you mention metadata and they fully expect social media to be monitored anyway. They think that if they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear. We have taught them well. Manipulating online polls clearly works. If they do ask questions just pull the national security card and talk about the “bad guys”. Raise the terror threat level and issue a travel warning.


Rule #4 when avoiding surveillance talk: if all else fails, be absurd

And if all else fails, just hit them with full-on absurdity. Like during that Investigatory Powers Tribunal hearing in the UK when there was “some jovial discussion … over the pronunciation of [GCHQ’s wiretapping programme] Tempora”. Should the emphasis be on the “Tem” or the “por”, should it be pronounced \tem-ˈpu̇r-ə\ (Tempura) or \tem-ˈpɔːr-ə\? Dickheads. Probably hadn’t had lunch and had sushi on their minds. Anyway, the response of choice to something like that is that we cannot confirm or deny the name of a hypothetical programme but that if it did indeed exist, it would be carried out legally. Insist that the Snowden documents are hypothetical. If we neither confirm nor deny, “there will be nothing to be declared unlawful”.

Boom! That’s how it’s done!

Us: one – Snowden and the general public: nil.

Now let’s all go have Tempura.


Another Disclaimer:

No Tempura was harmed during the production of this blog post.


One thought on ““I can neither confirm nor deny the name of a hypothetical programme” – How to avoid talking about surveillance.

  1. Pingback: Encryption is bad, debate is overrated and GCHQ wants more powers: what Robert Hannigan really said | Notes from Self

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