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Life in the Brave New World of the Panopticon

Is the Snowden Case Headed for a Plea Deal?

by PETER LEE

I’m guessing that there is more to Edward Snowden’s choice of Hong Kong instead of Iceland as an intial refuge than a matter of dim sum over skyr, hangikjöt, kleinur,laufabrauð, and bollur.

At the very least, Snowden can keep the global media pot boiling with interviews to the avid Hong Kong media about exciting China-related hacking secrets, thereby raising his profile and improving his chances of receiving genuine due process from the courts in Hong Kong and the United States.

It’s a better way to keep the world engaged in Snowden’s situation than giving an interview to the Fréttablaðið (Iceland’s biggest newspaper), watching the international stories slip to the inside page, and waiting for somebody to kick the door in.

But there’s another card he can play, especially if he doesn’t want to get extradited to the United States, albeit after a spectacular and presumably fair trial in Hong Kong, and then spend the rest of his life in a US prison.

That’s for him to make a deal with the US Government not to ignite whatever dynamite he’s got on the four laptops he brought to Hong Kong, in return for brief, easy time in some US penitentiary.

After all, in terms of informing and inflaming the public, Snowden’s work is pretty much done.

And he’s done it without revealing any operational details.

Maybe the best use of the rest of the information he’s got is as a “get out of jail” card.

If the USG doesn’t act interested, maybe its attitude will change after a few more embarrassing tidbits make it into the public domain.

I’ll be interested to see if the US government tries to get some kind of injunction to get the Hong Kong papers not to report his revelations and remove Snowden’s public relations megaphone–and diminish his bargaining power.

In the worst case, Snowden could threaten to turn over his goodies to the PRC if he didn’t get a deal.

That would certainly get Washington’s attention; but it would be immediately leaked to the press, branding Snowden with the “traitor” label, destroy any standing he’s been able to accrue, and make him fair game for whatever skullduggery the US decides to send down the pipe.

I doubt that’s Snowden’s strategy.

But maybe he’s bedeviling the US government with the unnerving prospect that the longer he stays in Hong Kong, the better the chance is that he’ll get snatched by PRC security services; and, if he does get arrested prior to extradition, who knows what will happen to him—and his laptops–during interrogation?

It’s a dangerous game with no guaranteed outcome, but what do you expect if you walk out of the United States with a computer full of secrets?

I think Edward Snowden (and Glenn Greenwald) knew what to expect, and that’s why he’s in Hong Kong.

Since I think CounterPunch readers expect some factual meat and potatoes as well as airy speculation, here are some more thoughts on Edward Snowden’s Panopticon:

For Some People, Edward Snowden’s Panopticon Is Already Here

Critics of Snowden’s leak concerning the extent of NSA surveillance often fall back on the argument that “people who don’t do bad things have nothing to fear”, i.e. extensive/intensive surveillance isn’t an issue for non-wrongdoers.

The “Panopticon” issue raised by Snowden (from a Foucault book) states, on the other hand, that omnipresent surveillance is by its nature oppressive—for everyone, including the “good guys”.

The gold standard for routine, workaday surveillance used to be the post office.

Some of us are old enough to remember the halcyon days when the greatest threat to public safety was the danger that a postal worker would go off and shoot himself and/or his boss and coworkers and/or the public at large.

As was reported in the press in the 1990s, a big part of “going postal” was the stressful work conditions (I’m assuming that some of the same practices prevail today, with some modifications, but we’ve got bigger homicidal fish to fry than the post office now and there isn’t as much reporting on the labor conditions inside the USPS).

A key problem at the post office was rampant Taylorism (industrial time management).

Workers who worked hard and were efficient were not rewarded; they got more work and longer routes.  Therefore workers “paced themselves” so they would not conspicuously exceed their quotas.

Management’s main job was squeezing more work out of the employees, and a key task was to identify and push the workers who were “pacing themselves”.

The whole system was underpinned by the surveillance system.  It wasn’t just to detect mail theft.  It was to catch workers who weren’t giving what the USPS considered 100%.

In 1998, Traci Hikull profiled USPS operations in northern California for the San Jose Metro:

Jan Maddux, president of the 1,000-plus-member American Postal Workers Union Local 73, sits in his San Jose office describing some uncharming but typical managerial tactics. “You’re gone 10 minutes and 30 seconds on your break, and you’re AWOL 30 seconds,” he says. “They’ll stand behind you and watch you to make sure you’re not casing [sorting mail] with one hand because that’s wasting time, see? So they’ll write you up.”

“These people work hard. The workload …” [a local postmaster] sighs, not finishing the sentence. When asked if he thinks the pressure to perform makes employees feel like they’re being watched for slipups, he covers his face with his hands and scrubs at it, the same way people do when they’ve been staring at a computer monitor too long.

“We’re supervising them not to catch them messing up but to be sure everything is handled properly,” he says finally.

 

“We have all these spotlights on us, and that’s why we’ve just gotten better and better,” Cattivera adds. “And isn’t that the way it should be? Shouldn’t we be held accountable to make sure you get your mail every day?”

It’s not hard to see why people lose it working for the post office. The constant surveillance alone would drive some people over the edge, and the peculiar logic takes care of the rest.

The fact of being under continual surveillance is, by itself, enough to stress people out.

A study in England concluded that pervasive workplace surveillance increased stress-related complaints by 7 to 10%:

Monitoring noted by the PSI study includes logging emails and internet usage, keystroke loggers, recording and timing calls and measuring shop-till throughput.

Bearing the brunt of the IT scrutiny are administrative and white-collar employees, such as call-centre staff and data-entry workers, who complained of an increase in work strain of 10 percent when they are being watched.

In 2013, the LA Times’ Alana Samuels wrote a two-part piece on today’s “harsh workplace” and the central role of surveillance.  She reported:

Phil Richards used to like his job driving a forklift in a produce and meat warehouse. He took pride in steering a case of beef with precision.

Now, he says, he has to speed through the warehouse to meet quotas, tracked by bosses each step of the way. Through a headset, a voice tells him what to do and how much time he has to do it.

It makes the Unified Grocers warehouse in Santa Fe Springs operate smoothly with fewer employees, but it also makes Richards’ work stressful.

“We’re just like human machines,” said Richards, 52. “But with machines, they don’t care whether you feel good, or if you’re having a bad day.”

Technology has eliminated many onerous work tasks, but it’s now one of the factors contributing to a harsher work environment.

Employers are using technology to read emails and monitor keystrokes, measure which employees spend the most time on social networking websites and track their movements inside and outside the office. They can see who works fastest and who talks the most on the phone. They can monitor how much time people spend talking to co-workers — and how much time they spend in the bathroom.

The sanitation truck that James Brooker III drives in Raleigh, N.C., has a GPS device that enables his bosses to track his every move. Co-workers have been disciplined for driving too slowly or for taking an extra 10 minutes on a lunch break on a tough day, he said.

“You’re always worried that you’re not doing your job correctly,” he said. “It makes you stressed out, and there’s so much pressure to rush.”

Employers can read workers’ email, see what websites they visit and read any emails or text messages stored on work-issued computers or smartphones. In all but six states (California is one of the exceptions), employers can require employees to provide their passwords to social networking sites. And in most states, employers can monitor their employees and are not required by law to tell them it’s happening.

Michael Cunningham found this out the hard way.

His employer suspected he wasn’t working when he said he was and put a GPS device on Cunningham’s personal car without telling him. Officials tracked him driving to a diner instead of work, tracked his son driving to an internship and tracked him during an approved vacation in Massachusetts. A year later, they fired him, explaining the GPS had confirmed their suspicions that he was falsifying his time sheets.

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Cunningham sued his employer, the New York state Department of Labor, but lost. Judges in New York’s Appellate Division ruled that the law does not prohibit employers from using GPS to monitor employee behavior if it is relevant to the employee’s job performance.

The ruling means that although the government has to get a warrant to use a GPS device to track criminals, it can legally track its employees without approval from the employee or a judge, said Corey Stoughton, the ACLU lawyer on the case.

When executives at Dixie Specialty Insurance, a Mississippi company, noticed a few employees were working more slowly than they once had, they installed software from Awareness Technology on company computers to monitor what websites the employees were visiting and block the more popular ones. Productivity jumped, said Cassandra Phillips, the company’s information technology manager.

Software from another company, SpectorSoft Corp., tracks how much time employees spend on certain websites and can measure whether it is “active time” — whether or not the employee is typing or clicking, for example.

In the private sector, the objective of surveillance is enhanced productivity.

And it works best, in true Panopticon style, when employees assume surveillance is universal and pervasive and modify their activity without the local Bill Lumbergh showing up to give them a nudge.

And then the company can lay off Bill Lumbergh! That’d be great! Start chewing those Rolaids, Bill!

In other words, control is internalized together with, of course, the stress.

In private life, I think a similar dynamic will apply as surveillance becomes more pervasive.

The result will not be enhanced productivity; it will be enhanced compliance.

We will experience the Stasi-worthy anxiety that our activities are being continually observed and judged and we may be found wanting.

The slogan could be: “I must do more; what must I do?”

That’s life in the brave new world of the Panopticon.

Safer? Maybe

More stressful? Definitely.

Peter Lee edits China Matters. His ground-breaking story on North Korea’s nuclear program, Big Bang Theory in North Korea, appears in the March issue of CounterPunch magazine. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org.