The Techno-Militarization Of America

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Remember last year? Edward Snowden! NSA! Shock! Horror! Dismay!

Looking back I’m amazed we all seemed so surprised. Over the last decade, pretty much every arm of American authority invoked “homeland security” as an excuse to acquire boatloads of new technology, and used it to help expand their power and authority to unprecedented levels. There is nothing at all exceptional about the NSA’s massive overreach. It was only keeping up with the Joneses — FBI, DEA, Border Patrol, police forces everywhere — who have all been busy doing exactly the same thing.

The impoverished city of Oakland is spending more than $10 million on a “Domain Awareness Center” surveillance hub for its cops, and cameras that track every license plate they see. Baltimore and NYC track license plates, too. Meanwhile, according to the LA Times, “Unmanned aircraft from an Air Force base in North Dakota help local police with surveillance,” and Motherboard reports: The Border Patrol’s fleet of Predator drones were loaned out 248 times in 2012, to “unnamed sheriff’s departments, the Department of Defense, the DEA, the Texas Rangers, and even the Bureaus of Land Management and Indian Affairs.”

Drones are just the tip of the hardware iceberg. Local police are now, as The Verge mordantly observed, “fighting crime with 18-ton military vehicles.” That’s just one example of the billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment given to police over the last few decades; and “a disproportionate share … has been obtained by police and sheriff’s departments in rural areas with few officers and little crime.” As Business Insider put it:

We produce so much military equipment that inventories of military robots, M-16 assault rifles, helicopters, armored vehicles, and grenade launchers eventually start to pile up and it turns out a lot of these weapons are going straight to American police forces to be used against US citizens.

A few choice examples from The Daily:

Cops in Cobb County, Ga. — one of the wealthiest and most educated counties in the U.S. — now have an amphibious tank. The sheriff of Richland County, S.C., proudly acquired a machine-gun-equipped armored personnel carrier that he nicknamed “The Peacemaker.”

And it’s not just equipment. It’s ethos and attitude. Police across America have increasingly begun to apply the military doctrine of using overwhelming force whenever possible. So SWAT raids rose over two decades from 3,000 a year to 50,000, including SWAT raids on illegal gambling, underage drinking, and Tibetan monks who overstayed their visas. Seven-year-olds are handcuffed and interrogated for hours over a missing five dollars (which they did not steal).

A few years ago, SF author Peter Watts* was arrested by the Border Patrol while trying to cross from America back to his native Canada, and eventually convicted (though, thankfully, not jailed) because, as he put it:

I just stood there, saying “What is the problem?”, just before Beaudry maced me. And that, said the Prosecutor in her final remarks — that, right there, was failure to comply. That was enough to convict.

As novelist Jo Walton* wrote:

One of the things that’s making me angry about the Peter Watts thing […] is the way so many people […] are saying that it must be his fault, that he must have done something to provoke it, that it wouldn’t have happened if he’d been polite and done what he was told and if he had, in effect, cringed more. This may well be the case. But is that the world you want to live in?

Unfortunately, it is in fact the world that many-to-most Americans live in today. The tech world — wealthy, educated, generally treated with respect by the authorities — seems to have been fairly blind to this fact … until cases began to crop up like Barrett Brown, weev, Aaron Swartz, and Jacob Appelbaum*, who recently observed:

There’s no real separation between the real world and the internet. What we’ve started to see is the militarization of that space. That isn’t to say that it just started to happen, just that we’ve started to see it in an incontrovertible, “Oh, the crazy paranoid people weren’t crazy and paranoid enough,” sort of way.

And so:

while, as Sarah Stillman writes in The New Yorker, regarding the ongoing appalling abuse of civil-forfeiture laws, “Americans who haven’t been charged with wrongdoing can be stripped of their cash, cars, and even homes.”

This collective power grab — I really don’t think that’s too strong a phrase — isn’t actually about security; it’s about organizations like the NSA concluding that since they can use new technology and novel legal interpretations to increase their power (and their budgets), therefore it’s imperative that they do.

It’s not that it’s bad for the authorities to use new technology. A lot of the time it’s an excellent idea. The NSA wants to listen in on high-confidence bad-guy cell-phone conversations in Yemen and Somalia? Fair enough. You can make a case for many aspects of Oakland’s Domain Awareness Center. And I’m a big fan of always-on chest/helmet cameras for police and others, for example, at least in theory … although of course, in practice, the authorities don’t like it at all when that footage gets out to the public.

But simply transposing military technology into the civil realm — or foreign surveillance techniques and tech into the domestic arena — seems really hard to justify to me, especially when violent crime is at a 40-year low across America… which is probably because of less lead, not more cops.

But nobody ever got a bigger budget and shinier tech toys by pointing facts like that out. The anthropic law of bureaucracies dictates that the ones which thrive are the ones which make self-perpetuation their first priority. And so now the police, and just about every American agency you care to name, and the contractors who supply them — call them the “security-industrial complex” — are implicitly colluding in the business of fear. The more shadowy enemies we have, and the more dangerous they seem, the more money the security-industrial complex gets, the bigger and more powerful it becomes, and the more secrecy it can justify.

So Chinese hackers, although they can hardly hold a candle to the NSA’s klieg lights, are trumped up as deadly online foes who might launch a so-called “cyberwar” at any moment. Important People somehow still manage to pretend, with straight faces, that the prohibitively counterproductive modern-day Prohibition called the War On Drugs is not evil, insane, futile, and doomed. And the War on Terror (which is a tactic, not an enemy — what’s next, a War On Pincer Movements?) means trumping up a diffuse group of of disorganized crazies who got lucky thirteen years ago into a deadly enemy on a par with mighty Soviet Russia.

Terrorists will attack America again, but they’re unlikely to be as lucky as they were in 2001, when they murdered as many Americans as are killed by car crashes every six weeks. Drugs do ruin lives, although an overwhelming number of their users don’t become addicted, and experts say alcohol is worse than crack or heroin. And there are indeed many bad-news black-hat hackers out there.

But it seems painfully apparent to me that, in juicing the alleged defenders against these shadowy enemies with the steroids of military technologies, rules, and attitudes, we have transformed them into a cure almost worse than the disease. Alas, nobody seems to have the incentive — or maybe, soon, the ability — to stage an intervention and send them to the detox and rehab they so desperately need.

* Disclaimer/disclosure: Peter, Jo, and Jake are all personal friends.