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Noam Chomsky, security, and equivocal information

Noam Chomsky and Barton Gellman were interviewed at the Engaging Big Data conference put on by MIT’s Senseable City Lab on Nov. 15. When Prof. Chomsky was asked what we can do about government surveillance, he reiterated his earlier call for us to understand the NSA surveillance scandal within an historical context that shows that governments always use technology for their own worst purposes. According to my liveblogging (= inaccurate, paraphrased) notes, Prof. Chomsky said:

Governments have been doing this for a century, using the best technology they had. I’m sure Gen. Alexander believes what he’s saying, but if you interviewed the Stasi, they would have said the same thing. Russian archives show that these monstrous thugs were talking very passionately to one another about defending democracy in Eastern Europe from the fascist threat coming from the West. Forty years ago, RAND released Japanese docs about the invasion of China, showing that the Japanese had heavenly intentions. They believed everything they were saying. I believe this is universal. We’d probably find it for Genghis Khan as well. I have yet to find any system of power that thought it was doing the wrong thing. They justify what they’re doing for the noblest of objectives, and they believe it. The CEOs of corporations as well. People find ways of justifying things. That’s why you should be extremely cautious when you hear an appeal to security. It literally carries no information, even in the technical sense: it’s completely predictable and thus carries no info. I don’t doubt that the US security folks believe it, but it is without meaning. The Nazis had their own internal justifications. [Emphasis added, of course.]

I was glad that Barton Gellman — hardly an NSA apologist — called Prof. Chomsky on his lumping of the NSA with the Stasi, for there is simply no comparison between the freedom we have in the US and the thuggish repression omnipresent in East Germany. But I was still bothered, albeit by a much smaller point. I have no serious quarrel with Prof. Chomsky’s points that government incursions on rights are nothing new, and that governments generally (always?) believe they are acting for the best of purposes. I am a little bit hung-up, however, on his equivocating on “information.”

Prof. Chomsky is of course right in his implied definition of information. (He is Noam Chomsky, after all, and knows a little more about the topic than I do.) Modern information is often described as a measure of surprise. A string of 100 alternating ones and zeroes conveys less information than a string of 100 bits that are less predictable, for if you can predict with certainty what the next bit will be, then you don’t learn anything from that bit; it carries no information. Information theory lets us quantify how much information is conveyed by streams of varying predictability.

So, when U.S. security folks say they are spying on us for our own security, are they saying literally nothing? Is that claim without meaning? Only in the technical sense of information. It is, in fact, quite meaningful, even if quite predictable, in the ordinary sense of the term “information.”

First, Prof. Chomsky’s point that governments do bad things while thinking they’re doing good is an important reminder to examine our own assumptions. Even the bad guys think they’re the good guys.

Second, I disagree with Prof. Chomsky’s generalization that governments always justify surveillance in the name of security. For example, governments sometimes record traffic (including the movement of identifiable cars through toll stations) with the justification that the information will be used to ease congestion. Tracking the position of mobile phones has been justified as necessary for providing swift EMT responses. Governments require us to fill out detailed reports on our personal finances every year on the grounds that they need to tax us fairly. Our government hires a fleet of people every ten years to visit us where we live in order to compile a census. These are all forms of surveillance, but in none of these cases is security given as the justification. And if you want to say that these other forms don’t count, I suspect it’s because it’s not surveillance done in the name of security…which is my point.

Third, governments rarely cite security as the justification without specifying what the population is being secured against; as Prof. Chomsky agrees, that’s an inherent part of the fear-mongering required to get us to accept being spied upon. So governments proclaim over and over what threatens our security: Spies in our midst? Civil unrest? Traitorous classes of people? Illegal aliens? Muggers and murderers? Terrorists? Thus, the security claim isn’t made on its own. It’s made with specific threats in mind, which makes the claim less predictable — and thus more informational — than Prof. Chomsky says.

So, I disagree with Prof. Chomsky’s argument that a government that justifies spying on the grounds of security is literally saying something without meaning. Even if it were entirely predictable that governments will always respond “Because security” when asked to justify surveillance — and my second point disputes that — we wouldn’t treat the response as meaningless but as requiring a follow-up question. And even if the government just kept repeating the word “Security” in response to all our questions, that very act would carry meaning as well, like a doctor who won’t tell you what a shot is for beyond saying “It’s to keep you healthy.” The lack of meaning in the Information Theory sense doesn’t carry into the realm in which people and their public officials engage in discourse.

Here’s an analogy. Prof. Chomsky’s argument is saying, “When a government justifies creating medical programs for health, what they’re saying is meaningless. They always say that! The Nazis said the same thing when they were sterilizing ‘inferiors,’ and Medieval physicians engaged in barbarous [barber-ous, actually – heyo!] practices in the name of health.” Such reasoning would rule out a discussion of whether current government-sponsored medical programs actually promote health. But that is just the sort of conversation we need to have now about the NSA.

Prof. Chomsky’s repeated appeals to history in this interview covers up exactly what we need to be discussing. Yes, both the NSA and the Stasi claimed security as their justification for spying. But far from that claim being meaningless, it calls for a careful analysis of the claim: the nature and severity of the risk, the most effective tactics to ameliorate that threat, the consequences of those tactics on broader rights and goods — all considerations that comparisons to the Stasi and Genghis Khan obscure. History counts, but not as a way to write off security considerations as meaningless by invoking a technical definition of “information.”

One Response to “Noam Chomsky, security, and equivocal information”

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