The Security State: An Ever Bigger and Dumber Dinosaur

Stratfor internal documents posted on Wikileaks reveal that Abraxas corporation — a security state contractor with close ties to the spooks at the US National Security Agency — has developed a software system networking countless public surveillance cameras with a facial recognition database.

Meanwhile, the NSA is building a gargantuan data-crunching facility — the Utah Data Center — that it expects to become operational in 2013: “Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter.'”

Civil libertarian reactions to this stuff consist mainly — and quite understandably — of horror at the newly augmented power of the automated police state. In terms of the state’s intent and its legal figleaves for justifying it, this is obviously yet another step in America’s slide into full-blown security state authoritarianism a la the movie “Brazil.”

We’re living in a high-tech form of bureaucratic Caesarism with about as much relation to the US Constitution it claims to observe as the Principate had to the institutional forms of the Roman Republic. But I’m less inclined to panic over the actual capabilities of that security state — precisely because it tends to operate like something out of “Brazil.”

The main reason the security state has never managed to thwart a real terror attack with all its electronic surveillance and data-crunching capabilities (they’ve all been stopped by a combo of stupid terrorists and smart fellow passengers) is that they’re already generating too much data for their bureaucracy to process. The system drowns in the false positives it generates, and in the face of this bureaucratic information overload actually ignores (say) direct warnings from the Underwear Bomber’s dad that his crazy kid is planning to blow up a plane. I’m guessing this will make the problem of false positives a hundred times worse, replacing the haystack the needle of usable info is buried in with an entire barn full of hay.

If this “Enemy of the State” monstrosity is good for anything at all, it’s keeping track of people the regime already knows it doesn’t like for political reasons. Imagine A. Mitchell Palmer with a facial recognition database of IWW and Socialist Party members, and you get the idea. “Eugene Debs spotted at the A&P — dispatch paddy wagon immediately!” But even for this application, the actual implementation would probably be more like Information Retrieval in “Brazil.” Some database error would result in Eugene Bebs being arrested instead.

That’s my second point. Consider the typical (very cozy) relationship between military contractors, the Pentagon’s procurement bureaucracies and congressmen from the districts where weapons systems will be built. The whole system is geared to massage weapons test results and grease the skids for approval. So you get extremely expensive weapons systems, with massive cost overruns, that — when tested in actual use — come down with all sorts of unforeseen bugs that were carefully concealed during the Potemkin Village “testing regime” and don’t perform at all as advertised in the contractors’ slick brochures.

The very fact that Abraxas has such incestuous ties with the security community should be a major source of reassurance in this regard.

Because the state is the state, it seeks unlimited power and attempts to acquire that power. But because the state is the state, the things it does to augment its power will mostly be stupid. The typical post-9/11 pattern has been for agile networks like Al Qaeda, Wikileaks and Anonymous to run circles around bureaucratic dinosaurs like Homeland Security and the TSA. The security state is trying to counter the threat by making the dinosaurs bigger. We’ll see how that works out.

Citations to this article:

Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist