How Technology Kills Democracy

In shutting down whistleblowing and investigative journalism on national security issues, the U.S. government can use its technology to determine who is speaking to whom and then use that metadata as evidence of leaks, a chilling new reality that endangers democracy, writes Norman Solomon.

By Norman Solomon

Of all the excuses ladled out for the Obama administration’s shredding of the Fourth Amendment while assaulting press freedom and prosecuting “national security” whistleblowers, none is more pernicious than the claim that technology is responsible.

At first glance, the explanation might seem to make sense. After all, the capacities of digital tech have become truly awesome. It’s easy to finger “technology” as the driver of government policies, as if the president at the wheel has little choice but to follow the technological routes that have opened up for Big Brother.

Barack Obama, then President-elect, and President George W. Bush at the White House during the 2008 transition.

Barack Obama, then President-elect, and President George W. Bush at the White House during the 2008 transition.

Now comes New York Times reporter Charlie Savage, telling listeners and viewers of a Democracy Now interview that the surveillance state is largely a matter of technology: “It’s just the way it is in the 21st century.”

That’s a great way to depoliticize a crucial subject — downplaying the major dynamics of the political economy, anti-democratic power and top-down choices — letting leaders off the hook, as if sophistication calls for understanding that government is to be regulated by high-tech forces rather than the other way around.

In effect, the message is that — if you don’t like mass surveillance and draconian measures to intimidate whistleblowers as well as journalists — your beef is really with technology, and good luck with pushing back against that. Get it? The fault, dear citizen, is not in our political stars but in digital tech.

When Amy Goodman asked Savage about the Obama administration’s record-high prosecutions of whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, he summed up this way:

“Because of technology, it’s impossible to hide who’s in contact with whom anymore, and cases are viable to investigate now that weren’t before. That’s not something Obama did or Bush did. It’s just the way it is in the 21st century, and investigative journalism is still grappling with the implications of that.”

A more astute and candid assessment of such matters can be found in “Through the Looking-Glass,” where Lewis Carroll wrote this dialogue:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” Alice replied, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” Humpty Dumpty responded, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

The surveillance state is not the default setting of digital technology. The surveillance state is a failure and suppressor of democracy. A surveillance state or a democratic system — which is to be master? [For a real-life example of how this technological prowess was used to punish a whistleblower, see the case of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling.]

Norman Solomon is co-founder of and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. He is the author of many books including War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.

6 comments for “How Technology Kills Democracy

  1. David G
    November 11, 2015 at 00:12

    I’m assuming Norman Solomon didn’t write the headline for this piece: it seems opposed to the point he is making.

  2. Steve Naidamast
    November 10, 2015 at 14:38

    The recent James Bond movie, “SPECTRE”, was as much an excellent movie for its genre as it was a profound statement on the new surveillance state, which has now arrived in all its hideousness.

    In the end of the movie, it is made very clear that the only people that such massive information surveillance benefits are those of the criminal elite. The “Good Guys” don’t need such invasive measures…

  3. Abbybwood
    November 10, 2015 at 02:42

    Just happened upon this link to a deposition Sybil Edmonds did in 2009 regarding State Secrets Privilege gag orders and government corruption regarding Dennis Hastert, Turkey, arms smuggling and drugs. In 5 parts. Only watched the first part but for me it was particularly interesting listening to attorney Bruce Fein chiming in every time the attorney tried to ask Sybil a question after she was sworn in trying to shut her up:

    Seriously. Somebody needs to get Sybil on tape now to spill the beans on our totally corrupt, treasonous federal government.

  4. Zachary Smith
    November 10, 2015 at 00:42

    Mr. Solomon’s brief essay surveys the effect of technology in limiting the ability of journalists to acquire information from whistleblowers.

    Because of technology, it’s impossible to hide who’s in contact with whom anymore, and cases are viable to investigate now that weren’t before.

    Because of development of the “fishbowl society”, getting information from “A” to “B” is nearly impossible without Big Brother knowing about it. Unfortunately, that’s only one of the issues with our ‘1984’ nation.

    Intimidation works with other important players as well. Politicians – like everyone else – have ‘skeletons’ in their closets. The All-Seeing Eye Of Big Surveillance will inevitably find out their deepest secrets, and the information is available for interested parties who want to use it.

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record, think about the 2012 election here in the US. A deeply unpopular president did not have a single person of note run against him in the primaries. Think of the robotic votes for Israel in both houses of Congress. Something lopsided like 99-1 was the likely outcome of such votes. Since that crappy little apartheid state is deeply embedded in our 1984-style intelligence system, why would we expect any other outcome?

    Then there is the new-fangled system of counting votes with computer systems which are proprietary and therefore unavailable for inspection by outside experts.

    It is a primal scream of a BradCast today, following what happened — once again — on Election Day yesterday. We see, again, the nightmare scenario I’ve warned about for so many years: a U.S. election where all of the pre-election polls suggest Candidate X is set to win, but Candidate Y ends up winning by a huge margin instead and nobody even bothers to verify that the computer tabulated results accurately reflect the intent of the voters.

    The blogger goes on to remark about how this happened in the recent election for Governor in Kentucky, but it is an event we see all the time, and everywhere.

    “Democracy” is just a nonsensical word when you allow the votes to be tallied by easily hacked computer devices. And there is almost never any possibility of a recount.

    Since I live in a section of Indiana where my vote is taken by an electronic device and recorded on a flash memory card, I don’t suppose I’ll ever again bother to vote in an important election. Those vote totals will say exactly what the people with access to the machines want them to say. And in my part of the country, there will NOT be a recount – unless you define looking at the Vote Total screen a second time as a recount.

    It’s simply a waste of my time.

    • Serkan
      November 12, 2015 at 01:58

      I wouldn’t mind voting machines as long as we have authorized access to verify our votes. Some system like this with auth tokens can easily be put in place and make everyone (for democracy) happy.

  5. Kiza
    November 9, 2015 at 23:18

    It is only in the US where guns kill people, (Muslim) religion kills people, war is waged on a method (terrorism) and technology creates a surveillance state.

    Never people do things, always words, sometimes even abstract words, do bad deeds. The land of individualism totally devoid of personal responsibility.

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