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The Military-Industrial Complex’s Secret War for Our Data

Date: 
7 July 2017
Authors: 

War profiteers are finding the data business easy going. The have wielded their unwarranted influence and applied their business model of causing and then profiting from insecurity and applied it to the digital age; the results have been more profit for them and less liberty for you.

When a politician riles against an evil tech giant for providing ‘safe spaces’ online, it’s a political distraction. The real battle for your data is being fought between the emergent tech giants and the military-industrial complex. Industry has spent decades seizing as much effective power from governments as possible that its influence and assumed role has become almost unquestionable. Their control over ever increasing amounts of your data has made it the world’s most valuable resource. The national security state has responded by exercising their influence on their last area of sovereignty; its monopoly on violence. Through surveillance legislation, they are crawling back as much data as possible by forcing the private sector to hand over the keys. Whoever is the winner, without your active participation, you are the loser.

In this battle, the intelligence and security agencies have a close and established ally: the war profiteers. Accustomed to seizing as much public money as possible from the military through lobbying and a revolving door with public servants, ‘private contractors’ have now embedded themselves so deep into national security state that they take in some 70% of the entire US intelligence budget. Their interests lie not with your security, but with insecurity.

Take BAE Systems, the UK’s largest arms company, whose shares recently rose by 7% in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, and by 13% in 2015 in the aftermath of the Paris attacks and the UK’s decision to start bombing targets in Syria. For years, it has been profiting from the ongoing war in Yemen, where despite supplying and maintaining the planes and munitions used by the Saudis, and despite posting an advert for a weapons loading technician in Saudi Arabia, its Chair still gets to claim that the company is ‘not involved in any military action’. The conflict has now claimed thousands of civilians’ lives, led to a famine endangering millions, and made the lives of every person in the country and region far less secure.

As increased instability from wars and repression has driven millions to seek better lives, a whole new market is thriving promising the ability to track, detain, or simply keep them out. The arms industry can expect the global border and maritime security market, valued at USD 16.3 billion in 2012, to grow to USD 32.5 billion by 2021. Hundreds of millions of Euros have already been spent by the EU on border security research projects, influenced heavily by the arms lobby, while its borders are slowly being militarized with drones, sensors, and satellite tracking technology and biometric super databases. BAE’s offerings now include a plane-mounted ‘real-time 24 hour wide area persistent surveillance’ system “providing a unparalleled view of cities and critical areas both day and night… giving analysts the ability to backtrack and determine who, how and when an action was implemented.”

And in the face of the increased threats from wars in the Middle East and migration, this naturally means that everyone else must sacrifice some liberty to more security, and to more domestic surveillance. Out in front is the UK, where the new Investigatory Powers Act gives unparalleled powers to the UK’s intelligence agencies to access data, conduct mass surveillance, and hack — without a hint of irony in one single Act undermining the very liberties and values it seeks to protect. With a single warrant, the UK government can now simultaneously hack as many people as it wants. As the powers contained in the bill were being hammered by Privacy International and others in written submissions to the parliamentary committee scrutinizing the bill, the UK’s main security and defence lobby group, which includes BAE, argued that “The powers as they currently stand are workable as long as they are properly resourced.” BAE and others happen to be able to provide the necessary resources by selling a full range of systems used to spy on domestic telecommunications networks.

Having developed these surveillance systems, the arms industry can then make even more profit by exporting them around the world. As the BBC and Information revealed earlier this month, BAE Systems has for years been secretly developing sophisticated mass internet surveillance systems and selling them to some of the world’s worst human rights abusers such as Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, where human rights defenders are known to be targeted by electronic surveillance, and whose government agencies were last week reported to be engaged in torture in secret detention facilities. Techniques reportedly include “The Grill”, where people are tied to a spit and roasted alive. BAE is one of hundreds of security and arms companies selling surveillance systems around the world.

The result of wide-sweeping offensive hacking and surveillance powers worldwide is that it makes all our data more vulnerable; hacking, for example, makes devices and networks less secure for everyone by forcing the tech industry to deliberately weaken or compromise devices. For the war profiteers again this means opportunities. BAE has spent years slowly snapping up cyber defence companies to facilitate the growing demand that comes as a direct consequence; its investors were recently told that “Cyber security is becoming an important part of government security and a core element of stewardship for commercial enterprises”. The UK cyber wing Applied Intelligence achieved double-digit order intake and sales growth in 2015. It’s a sign of where the market is heading; in Israel, exports of cyber security products overtook military exports for the first time in 2014.

The effect of all this for citizens is complete exclusion. BAE’s Cyber division provides “Cyber defence for business, government, nations”; the explicit aim of the UK’s new National Cyber Security Strategy is to make the UK “one of the most secure places in the world to do business in cyberspace.” Neither aim at protecting individuals. If they were to holistically consider the needs and rights of individuals, they wouldn’t be compromising individual security through hacking and mass surveillance systems. BAE’s site would at least use HTTPS, a basic security feature to protect visitors.

Nobody today denies that an industry capable of meeting the demand for security and defence is a fact of life. But the secrecy in which it operates is a fundamental threat to democracy. Eisenhower’s famous warning against the military-industrial complex may seem like an irrelevant relic in the age of mass surveillance, mass migration and massive cyber breaches, but its fundamental message about the corrosive effect of industrial influence on public policy-making is as true today as ever. He believed that only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry could ensure that security and liberty may prosper together; why so much of the battle for our data is today being fought with the exclusion of citizens implicates us all.