We look to China as a totalitarian police-state undergoing hyper-capitalism.
As a guest-professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, I was offered VIP overseas access on the campus network, which offered, maybe, 80% of the web — everything but Wikipedia, BBC, and who knows what else. Without this extremely special login, however, the web was a stark list of accessible domain names: google.com.cn, microsoft.com.cn, yahoo.com.cn, the university intranet, and a set of Chinese web properties that require Mandarin literacy to discuss here.
I was advised that every site, email and instant message that I exchanged while on the campus network was being logged, databased, and perhaps, even monitored by a human resource, in real-time. In China, as a visitor, you are always impressed by a society the size of ours, quadrupled. A workforce of unimaginable quantity is assigned to each and every micro-task that occupies the Middle Kingdom, Earth’s most ancient society.1 It is not unimaginable that a team of internet surveillance specialists could have been assigned to monitor my activities, especially since I was an American professor invited to teach design for the web on state turf. Certainly, I would be in a position to discuss controversial topics in front of impressionable minds, movements of web-based democracy. In jargon, we call it Web 2.0, user-generated content, crowd-sourcing, social networks. These tendencies may reflect American group dynamics, the result of open, free expressions. In other ways, web communities resonate with China’s state-centric qualities, group over individual, country over citizen, a bastion of anonymous, de-humanized, technocratic interactions. Really, it’s the hyper-individualism of web democracy that characterizes what’s new and exciting about the net, today. Possessive pronouns and terms of individuality exclaim the brands of blazing net properties. MySpace. YouTube. Facebook.
Not only do Tsinghua students experience a Great Firewall internet, they don’t even benefit from networked classroom computers. Viruses are blamed as the reason, but you won’t even find Ethernet cables connecting PCs in campus classrooms and laboratories. Naturally, it was a challenge to check my email, let alone teach a course in web design. I’ve already written more generally about this teaching exchange on these pages. My point here is that I can confirm from personal experience, the Great Firewall of China is omnipresent, a truth, not an an exaggeration.
We would never imagine that our own internet at home, in the US, was limited2 or monitored by our central government. We readily accept that it is monitored and data-mined for profit by the corporations that run these services. But we cherish a different sort of firewall, a Great Firewall of America, a constitutional separation between commerce and government when it comes to surveillance of citizens. In the US, it’s a national ambition to profit from consumer surveillance,3 but it’s a crime for the government to perform unauthorized surveillance of citizens.4 Or is it?
Total Information Awareness is the supposed internal name for the Bush Administration’s NSA data-mining operation on the American open internet. We learn today of Attorneys General, past and present, and their secretive exchanges over hospital beds, ordered by the highest powers, to quash concerns of its legality and active use. Surprisingly, Congress scrambles to rewrite laws to make these crimes legal. According to the PBS Frontline “Spying on the Homefront” special reports, we are only beginning to discover how the Great Firewall of America, that sacred separation between Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue is secretly breached. In a confusing twist of metaphor, if you believe Mark Klein’s account of the NSA ‘splitter rooms’ at AT&T backbone facilities where the aortas of the internet in major cities are essentially tapped with NSA equipment, Big Brother channels our collective electronic thoughts.
We can only assume that data-mining endeavors of unimaginable scale are taking place on these servers and switches, all paid for by fellow citizens. We can only assume that AT&T and other telecom executives crumbled or gladly accepted the NSA’s requests to install these electronic surveillance centers and install the Great Firewall of America 2.0, the core tool of TIA. Indeed, we can only assume that since installation, every web site, visitor history, email, IM, and file transferred has been logged and data-mined by the NSA. We can only assume that algorithms beyond the scope and scale of Google’s crawlers are trawling and flagging content and IP addresses. The exact identities of each consumer/citizen is obtainable through a court-order to the appropriate ISP. Real-time dossiers are being compiled by software agents, associating net, consumer and governmental identities.
We are told that this is for fighting terrorism, it is patriotic to believe that the government could never erroneously apply justice, that data mining software connects the dots perfectly, and that it is our civic duty to forsake civil rights in the name of security.
We may be able to visit any site we want, post any language or image we desire, and communicate in any manner we see fit, as Americans. Our Chinese counterparts, however, may need to circumvent serious oppressions in order to enjoy similarly unfettered electronic freedoms. Indeed, incarceration and execution remain ever-present risks of destabilization and disruption to social order through expressions of taboo topics.5 But we both share in the inevitable shame in knowing that our governments employ the highest of technologies to apply Panoptic surveillance on its citizens. At least in China, you’re easily reminded that this is true. In the US, we are fooled into thinking this is false. The US was a nation designed to be great through its checks and balances. Do we need regimes like China’s to remind us of what we will become if we recklessly abandon our core national values?
So in stating all of this, why would I “feed the dragon” and offer my criticisms here, where the AT&T NSA TIA servers might spider, filter, identify, sort, tag, cross-reference, and save for later, just in case any red flags come up? Red Flags. Imagine that.6
- A direct translation of 中国 (zhong guo), the name for China, in Chinese, is “middle kingdom.” Indeed, the language and consistent culture of China has lasted longer than any other civilization, thousands of recorded years. [↩]
- Although, see Net Neutrality [↩]
- See Google, ChoicePoint, the credit companies, bureaus and banks, retailers, market researchers, and so forth. Even this website uses Google agent technologies to analyze the content of this page to serve advertising and provide the owner with in-depth, but anonymous, site usage and tracking information. [↩]
- See FISA. [↩]
- The Three Ts: Taiwan, Tian’anmen, and Tibet are well known taboo topics. In addition, Democracy, Falun Gong and the resilient cult of Mao remain profoundly censored topics in China. [↩]
- If you’re a federal employee reading this, I just wanted to say “Hi.” Otherwise, you’re a computer program and you’ve probably already red-flagged this data. [↩]