Review – Levine, “Surveillance Valley”

Yasha Levine, “Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet” (2018) – Some of the nerds in my life are mad about Yasha Levine, for reasons somewhat opaque to me. Some sort of issue with his issue with Tor or Signal or something. This is not a request for clarification. I’m a low-tech kind of guy. I assume anything put out over any kind of electronic communication can and will be found and read by the authorities if they take a mind to do so. As far as I’m concerned, the way the smarter mob bosses went about it is right- don’t write anything down you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times. Anything that needs to be denied should be kept to verbal communication, or better yet, not communicated at all. I’m sure your crypto math is just wonderful, nerds, but still.

Anyway… here, Levine attempts to invert one of the conventional understandings of the internet is. Many people (I tend to think that number is shrinking, actually, but later for that) see the internet as a tool for the common good — sharing cat pictures, cultural communication, even collective liberation — that has been subverted by mean actors such as the NSA into being a tool of surveillance and oppression instead. In Levine’s telling, this is precisely backwards. While the origins of internet precursor ARPANET as a command and control technology in case of nuclear war are relatively well known, Levine illuminates how many of the technical advances that went into the internet and computing had the other side of the Cold War in mind- proxy war in the developing world.

Figures from the cold war social science world like Ithiel de Sola Pool sought to enhance American capacities to process social information, of the kind useful in counterinsurgency, and sought out computer technology to help them do it. Levine used a somewhat broader definition of counterinsurgency than I do in my dissertation, but the picture he paints of a social science that believed it could scientifically predict and manage human societies provided they had the right kind of data married to a Cold War state looking to prevent a rash of communist revolution in the third world is accurate in broad strokes. I ran across many documents of social scientists from places like RAND and Simulatics discussing how to parse massive amounts of data produced by many studies across Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia, though not any about the technological angle specifically- wasn’t looking for that.

In Levine’s telling, whatever else it was for command and control purposes, the internet was supposed to be an “early warning system” for social revolution, both at home and abroad, made possible by networked computer combing massive databases of social facts. Moreover, people in the sixties and seventies understood it as such. There were protests against the development of ARPANET and other early computer networks, and people generally saw computers, networks, and those who put them together as sinister agents of The Man.

Networked computers only came to be seen as normal, or liberatory, or anything other than a vast surveillance machine, through a decades-long cultural shift. Certain refugees from the collapse of the hippie dream adopted computers as a potential apolitical liberatory technology, like LSD was supposed to be, the culture as a whole got more trusting of corporate power after the hangover of Watergate, marketing got better… Levine is less specific with this, in what is after all a journalistic account and not a deep dive into cultural history. For that, I recommend Fred Turner’s “From Counterculture to Cyberculture,” though that doesn’t cover the counterinsurgency angle of the internet like Levine does.

Either way, just in time for computers to get small and powerful enough to fit in private homes in a way people might want, people let their guards down about what computers and the internet might mean. Personally, I’d put a lot more chits on “people like playing games and looking at porn in the privacy of their own home” than “people came to see the internet as a new frontier of freedom” as the reason why people embraced it the way they did, but Levine, in his long fight with nerds of several stripes, puts a good deal emphasis on the dreams of cyber-libertarians ala Wired, the better to dunk on them. One way or another, they’re everywhere, all linked up on a network essentially handed out for pretty much nothing to private interests after having been built with taxpayer money.

Here’s something I didn’t know, and feel stupid for not knowing- apparently, google, facebook, amazon et al actively scan all the stuff you put in? See, even with my idea about keeping anything truly secret off of the machines, I still thought if they wanted to find something, they’d go look for it. But no- if Levine’s right (and this doesn’t seem controversial afaict), they keep and analyze everything, just as a matter of course. All of it goes in to making profiles of you- the kind of thing the counterinsurgents would have loved to have to, I dunno, suss out the “modern personality types” among the Vietnamese peasantry (and to shoot anyone who was putting aside enough rice to feed a guerrilla), but in this instance, mainly to sell you shit. I always wondered about that, too- do those ads actually work well enough to fund all this? I maybe make one purchase a year based on clicking ads I see… guess it’s the same logic behind naming sports arenas after your brand, which never made much sense to me either… One way in which ideological cyber-libertarianism really has had a broad popular effect is in propogating the idea that the internet would be great if not for the government snooping. But Levine drives home the point that it’s not just the government- it’s private actors, as well, who libertarians either elide or laud.

This is, to say the least, not a hopeful book. Getting offline isn’t really a solution (among other things, I have to figure that’s a huge red flag to the relevant powers that be). “Self-regulation” is more or less what got us here in the first place. As far as I can tell, the main beef the nerds have with Levine is he dismissed popular encrypted message software because it was in some part funded by the same government agencies that they’re supposed to guard against (to say nothing of once you get on google, amazon, or facebook — i.e., the internet — those companies have you, crypto or no). Presumably this came with the usual twitter mudslinging that just sort of seems to happen around our modern-day muckrakers.

I don’t know the rights or wrongs of it — I do not know tech — but I know that I use Signal A. because friends insist and B. because I figure one additional hurdle can’t hurt- and I wouldn’t put anything well and truly secret on there, following the New York Times rule. Either way, I think even with occasional gaps and goofs (I don’t know tech, but I do know Massachusetts geography: Lincoln is ten miles west of Cambridge, not east, and MIT is on the same side of the river as Harvard) it’s a good readable way to get across an important point about one of the basic structures of our world. ****

Review – Levine, “Surveillance Valley”

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