Sunday, June 16, 2013


Hong Kong. Photo by Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty, via The Guardian.
Odd little detail, on the demonstrations yesterday in Hong Kong in support of Edward Snowden and his stand in favor of Hong Kong's famous tradition of unsurveilled* free speech: It should be obvious to anybody with any experience of the situation that the Beijing government is quietly backing the demonstrations—some protests in Hong Kong are in brave and magnificent opposition, but this is not one of them—and yet from the US press coverage it's just about impossible to tell; looking at the Times, CNN, and Reuters (via Raw Story), only the last even hints at it: [jump]
About a dozen groups organized two rallies, including the city’s two largest political camps. Leaders of major political parties sought explanations for Snowden’s allegations of spying.
Hong Kong’s largest pro-Beijing political party, the DAB, demanded an apology from Washington, clarification of “illegal” espionage activities and an immediate halt to them.
I mean, why do they have to whistle around the corner between paragraphs instead of just saying that the DAB is one of the organizers? (That's why there are two rallies, because the DAB and the Democrats wouldn't wish to be seen at the same one.) Why do the Times and CNN both give the impression that the main impetus is from the British expat Tom Grundy?** (Something tells me it's because Grundy called them instead of waiting by the phone.) It gives a rather false idea of what's actually happening and who's manipulating whom.

*Martin Lee, the founding chairman of the Democratic Party, said the Chinese government engages in far more extensive monitoring of phone calls and Internet activity in Hong Kong than the United States government does [Duh. —ed.]. And unlike the United States, the Chinese government has been willing to leak personal details of people’s lives to the news media to punish them for not toeing the line politically, he said. (New York Times, June 15, 2013).

**I must say I have a soft spot in my heart for Grundy, who attempted to put Tony Blair under arrest the last time that scumbag was in HK. But believe me, Beijing doesn't regard him as a threat—not that he doesn't do good work, he just doesn't do that work. It's not a criticism of Eric Clapton to note that he doesn't play cello, though it might be very brave of him to do so.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is this the embonpoint of a mass murderer?" He was speaking at Hong Kong University on "Faith and Globalization". Image from Getty.
Speaking of manipulation, the Vixen has concocted a hilarious kind of movie-treatment outline, just to show where narrative construction can take you in times like these:
The current surveillance paradigm was going to get leaked and Snowden is a front for the government getting out in front of it in just the kind of way that clouds the details. Or, to really go for broke: although the NSA stuff has become the big story, it's just the cover for getting the deets of the Chinese hacking (I know we're all "shocked! shocked!" to know that there is hacking in our spy establishments!) out. (Also a runner-up, if China accepts an offer to defect, we have a man inside.)
I'd add, this would be a terrific way to sneak a full-size Trojan horse into Glenn Greenwald's apartment, with a self-exploding story that would reveal his lack of critical thinking ability to the world at large and end his career. Then again that would conflict with the classic story in which Greenwald is himself a Bush-era plant in the CIA plot against Democrats which I'm afraid I have seen in the work of at least one of our flakier brother Obots (but maybe I dreamed it).

I've assumed that this movie is a comedy—a fairly grim one, perhaps, like Our Man in Havana—ever since the detail came out that the PRISM leak was a PowerPoint presentation. Doesn't anybody in the press know what PowerPoint is for? It is for giving your boss or client (nowadays, as we all increasingly corporatize ourselves, bosses and clients are no longer particular distinct anyway) the impression that you are fantastically engaged in making him or her happy; it takes almost as much work as it would do to accomplish the actual task on which it reports, but it satisfies more, because it resembles more what the boss had in mind, not so much a job as a picture of what it would be like for the job to be done. Even when you use it for "educational" purposes it is your supervisor, not your students, whose approval you are aiming at.

The PRISM PowerPoint was plainly meant to assure somebody in management that everything was going according to plan when, in fact, it wasn't. What plan? Ultimately, to realize the thing you've seen in countless TV shows and movies with the wall of video monitors, or one gigantic monitor that divides up into ten or twenty windows, giving you a portrait of the Person the cops are interested in linked with lists of personal information, pictures of friends, wives, ex-wives, and so on. "That's just the interesting thing," says the station geek clutching the remote, "the package was supposed to be delivered across the street," and—click!—there's a map, and a credit card record, and the UPS tracking order.

The screenwriters who originally invented this device did not do it to make the cops' work easier but their own: it's a narrative trick, to summarize hours and hours of real police work, gathering evidence, sifting it, and putting it together, in a few quick, richly informative shots. And of course they didn't have to invent the mechanics of how it would work. How do pages take off from wall calendars and fly out the window?

Incidentally, cop and espionage shows are very likely the main reason citizens are so little upset by the recent news, because they've been telling us for decades that the authorities have all this information about us already (and they never show the authorities looking at it for the wrong reasons, or stalking the wrong people). How did they get those pictures, those bank statements, those elaborate maps? They're just there, in the wall.
“You cannot turn on a cop drama on television where there is not somebody who’s pinging somebody’s cell phone or taking a look at the phone calls made from some landline or telephone booth to help solve some crime on television,” [Karl Rove told Chris Wallace this morning]. “And it is routinely done in a large scale at the local law enforcement level.” (Raw Story)
I have no idea what is technically wrong with PRISM, but I think that we can assume it doesn't work as advertised, mystifies the in-agency management, and is orders of magnitude over  budget. I loved the detail that they have to be 51% confident that the source they are stalking is actually a foreigner. What's clear is that the PowerPoint was designed to make it look much better (from management's point of view, and thus more abusive) than it actually is, and that young Edward really didn't understand that.
Image via The Magnetic Brain.

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