Civil Liberties

Why a Government That Collects Everyone's Private Data Won't Let Its Employees Access Public Information

Dysfunctional bureaucracies in action.


We already mentioned this story in the morning links, but it deserves a post of its own. The Monterey Herald reports that

Network Management 101

The Army admitted Thursday to not only restricting access to The Guardian news website at the Presidio of Monterey, as reported in Thursday's Herald, but Armywide.

Presidio employees said the site had been blocked since The Guardian broke several stories on data collection by the National Security Agency.

Gordon Van Vleet, an Arizona-based spokesman for the Army Network Enterprise Technology Command…wrote it is routine for the Department of Defense to take preventative "network hygiene" measures to mitigate unauthorized disclosures of classified information.

Sure enough, the government did the same thing when the WikiLeaks revelations gushed forth in 2010, trying to cut off access to the leaked cables and even to outlets that discussed the leaked cables. At the Air Force, employees' computers were blocked from accessing more than 25 publications, including The New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and, yes, The Guardian. No longer able to prevent information from reaching the public, the government instead attempted to prevent it from reaching itself.

This speaks to a deeper issue. It's an established principle that the people at the top of a hierarchy tend to be woefully ignorant of what happens at the bottom. The people at the bottom, meanwhile, feel pressure to see the world in the manner prescribed by the people above them. As Robert Anton Wilson once put it,

Information Theory 101
Seth Tobacman

Every authoritarian structure can be visualized as a pyramid with an eye on the top. This is the typical flow-chart of any government, any corporation, any Army, any bureaucracy, any mammalian pack. On each rung, participants bear a burden of nescience in relation to those above them. That is, they must be very, very careful that the natural sensory activities of being conscious organisms—the acts of seeing, hearing, smelling, drawing inferences from perception, etc.—are in accord with the reality-tunnel of those above them. This is absolutely vital; pack status (and "job security") depends on it. It is much less important—a luxury that can easily be discarded—that these perceptions be in accord with objective fact.

But this leads to an equal and opposite burden of omniscience upon those at the top, in the eye of the pyramid. All that is forbidden to those at the bottom—the conscious activities of perception and evaluation—is demanded of the Power Elite, the master class. They must attempt to do the seeing, hearing, smelling, etc. and all the thinking and evaluating for the whole pyramid.

Primatology 101

But a man with a gun (the power to punish) is told only what the target thinks will not cause him to pull the trigger (write the pink slip, order the court-martial). The elite, with their burden of omniscience, face the underlings, with their burden of nescience, and receive only the feedback consistent with their own preconceived notions and reality-tunnels. The burden of omniscience becomes, over time, another and more complex burden of nescience. Nobody really knows anything anymore, or if they do, they are careful to hide the fact. The burden of nescience becomes omnipresent. More and more of sensory experience becomes unspeakable.

Relatively healthy hierarchies are able to receive signals—market pressures, employee revolts—that push back against those dysfunctions. The more closed and controlled a bureaucracy is, the less likely those signals are to get through. And few bureaucracies are as closed and controlled as the institutions devoted to national security.

Political Science 101

Julian Assange was aware of this when he created WikiLeaks. Indeed, he was counting on it. In an essay called "State and Terrorist Conspiracies"—originally circulated in 2006, but not particularly well-known until Aaron Bady discussed it on his blog four years later—Assange explained his thinking. In Bady's words, "the more opaque [an organization] becomes to itself (as a defense against the outside gaze), the less able it will be to 'think' as a system, to communicate with itself. The more conspiratorial it becomes, in a certain sense, the less effective it will be as a conspiracy." When leaks appear, an authoritarian organization "will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function." WikiLeaks would make its target "so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire."

It's the ju-jitsu school of subversion. And if you're an Army officer trying to read The Guardian at the office, you might start to suspect that it's working.

Further reading: "Our Leaky World" and "If This Is a New Cold War, Who's the Enemy Supposed to Be?"