I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Verax by Pratap ChatterjeeKhalil
Published by Metropolitan Books on October 24th 2017
Genres: Comics & Graphic Novels, Nonfiction, General, Social Science, Privacy & Surveillance, Political Science
Format: Electronic ARC
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Taken together, these vast powers can confer god-like omniscience on whoever has control over them. In the hands of a vengeful, ideological, or irrational person … Who knows how these powerful weapons could be used against us?
This book made me want to delete all my online accounts and go completely off the grid. Okay, maybe not–I’m addicted to the convenience of the Internet and the comforts of modern life–but I can’t say I wasn’t warned!
“Unfortunately, when the NSA created Stellar Wind after 9/11, they took away the controls that I created and turned it on you and I’m sorry for that! This was something the Stasi, the KGB, or the Gestapo would have LOVED to have had! Just because we’re a democracy doesn’t mean we will stay that way.” – Bill Binney
Verax is graphic nonfiction that covers whistleblowers, drone warfare, and mass surveillance in the post-9/11 era, with a focus on events during the Obama administration. Journalist Pratap Chatterjee was already investigating software contractors and the big business of spying technology, but the story becomes personal for him after he travels to Pakistan and meets with relatives of drone victims. Just three days later, one of the soccer-loving teenagers he spoke with was killed in a drone strike. Throughout the book, Chatterjee seeks to track down connections between the NSA’s mass surveillance program and drone killings. If you’ve ever followed any of the news on mass surveillance, you’ll recognize many of the people featured: Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald. “Verax“ is the Latin word for “truth teller” and was one of Snowden’s code names.
It’s not just about an invasion of privacy. It’s also about blanket surveillance of innocent people who then become targets for killing.
The methods the intelligence agencies use to gather information and how that information is used is reported in a concise and accessible way. How do they sort and draw conclusions from the mass quantities of information they collect? How accurate are their results? According to Chatterjee, not well and not very. People are broken down into a bundle of traits that are used to predict terroristic threats; there can be an awfully thin line between a terrorist and an ordinary civilian. Rather than listening to the content of every call, they collect and analyze the “metadata,” the who/what/whens of the communications. Their analysis software can answer questions as broad as “My target speaks German but is in Pakistan. How can I find him?” in a method similar to how Google returns search results. A common dismissal of mass surveillance concerns is that there’s nothing to worry about if you have nothing to hide, but Chatterjee shows how easy it is to draw the wrong conclusions from the data. We’ve also seen repeatedly throughout history that a motivated authoritarian can use the most insignificant details to ensnare potential political enemies. Western spying technology has been sold to repressive regimes and leaders in Syria and Egypt have used it to quash dissent.
“Snowden once said that the problem was not that we didn’t have enough data. The problem with mass surveillance is that we’re piling more hay on a haystack. But more hay won’t help you find a needle! Likewise more bad data can just make you more likely to make mistake.”
One of the most enlightening sections was the part about drone warfare and how targets are chosen. The Obama Administration claimed the drones strikes occur with “surgical precision,” but just how reliable is the targeting? It can be really easy to draw the wrong conclusions from half a world away. A single Predator drone is operated by over a hundred people located all over the world. These people have to analyze mountains of data and an unfamiliar culture, while also dealing with unclear images and occasionally inaccurate information. Even something as seemingly insignificant as a wrong digit in a phone number can lead to a faulty identification and a wrongful death. Chatterjee investigates the effects of drone warfare on the drone operators who work thousands of miles away from the combat zone and meets with drone pilots who suffer from PTSD.
“During President Obama’s two terms in office, he approved 542 such targeted strikes in 2,920 days–one every 5.4 days. From his inauguration through today, President Trump had approved at least 75 drone strikes or raids in 74 days–about one in every 1.25 days.” – Micah Zenko, Council on Foreign Relations (Related: October 2017 article related to increasing civilian deaths in drone strikes.)
It’s difficult to pinpoint exact numbers of innocent civilians killed in drone strikes, but as of 12/12/2017, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that 7% to 22% of the 7,207-10,511 killed in 4701 confirmed strikes across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen were civilians. Several situations in which the wrong people were killed are highlighted, including the story of two US marines who were killed in a friendly-fire drone attack. In Chapter 13, there’s an intense depiction of the conversation preceding a drone strike where twenty-three Afghan civilians were killed after they were wrongly identified as enemy combatants. This book focuses on the criticisms of drone warfare, but are also many who support the drone program as it stands. The supporters say that drones are more accurate than other methods, that there will always be “collateral damage” in a war, and that it saves US soldiers’ lives. (Related article: Drones: Actually the Most Humane Form of Warfare Ever by former Navy pilot Michael W. Lewis)
“Technology can occasionally give you a false sense of security that you can see everything, that you can hear everything, that you know everything.” –Air Force Major General James Poss
• The graphic format: Mass surveillance programs are a complicated, sleep-inducing topic for the average person. As one of Chatterjee’s editors says in the beginning, “software contractors are not sexy!” The graphic format makes it easier to process new an complex information. It also allows the author to avoid boring the reader with giant walls of techy text! Chatterjee does a good job of comparing the more complex concepts to things the average person will be familiar with.
• It shows what happens whistleblowers who’ve went the legal route and why some people have chosen to go outside the bounds of the law.
• It discusses the problems and potential consequences of mass surveillance and drone warfare.
• It’s just as much about chasing down the story as it is about mass surveillance. Journalists investigating government overreach face obstacles while researching, even in “free” countries. Citizens, and consequently editors, are disinterested in the story despite its far-reaching implications for us all. However, I was more interested in the the last third of the book than the details of chasing down the story. I enjoyed the book much more after “Chapter Ten,” when the focus shifts to the methods of mass surveillance and details of drone warfare.
• Too much Edward Snowden! I’ve heard the Snowden story a million times at this point, so dedicating almost a quarter of the book to him–from information theft to fleeing to Russia–was excessive. He’s a big part of why we are even talking about all of this to begin with, but I was more interested in the details of what Snowden released than Snowden himself. I think it was a mistake to focus on him so much, because the controversy surrounding the whistleblowers tends to completely eclipse any conversation about mass surveillance. Right or wrong, the information is out there now.
“The greatest fear I have regarding the outcome of these disclosures for America is that nothing will change. That people will see in the media all these disclosures, but they won’t be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests.” – Edward Snowden
Verax is a critical look at mass surveillance and drone warfare that raises issues that are important for everyone to consider. Are we being true to our values? Can we do better? How much privacy are you willing to give up for security? Has mass surveillance foiled any terrorist plots or is it actually creating more terrorists? Are we trading innocent peoples’ lives for the illusion of safety while simultaneously making ourselves less safe in reality? Has government dependence on mass surveillance simply caused terrorists to change their tactics? In a book I just read about far-right groups, it’s mentioned that terrorist groups have shifted more towards lone wolf attacks because it’s easier to remain undetected. (Related: Chart on page 6). Verax also addresses some overarching principles, such as the dangers that come with tribal loyalties. Too often people are in favor of expansive powers when their own political party is in charge, forgetting that those same powers will still apply when the opposing party or an unsavory leader is in power. It’s important to look beyond party loyalty to the flaws and potential consequences of our decisions. Our leaders should never be able to take our approval for granted. It’s also necessary to periodically reassess our opinions when there’s hard data about the effectiveness and the consequences. There were sections of this book that I thought could be more concise, but overall it’s accessible introduction to the topic.
Some of the articles referenced in the book:
• The CIA’s unaccountable drone war claims another casualty by Pratap Chatterjee
• Trump will have vast powers. He can thank Democrats for them. by Glenn Greenwald: “The problem [civil liberties advocates] encountered was the same one they’d faced during the Bush presidency when trying (and failing) to persuade putatively small-government conservatives to oppose these expansions of presidential power: namely, many people are perfectly content to have such authority vested in leaders they trust, and fear them only when a politician from the opposing party wields them.”
• Newtown kids v Yemenis and Pakistanis: what explains the disparate reactions? by Glenn Greenwald
• Laptop seizures by US government highlight 9/11-era climate of fear by Glenn Greenwald
• NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily by Glenn Greenwald
• President Obama’s Dragnet – by NYTimes Editorial Board
• Edward Snowden is No Hero by Jeffrey Toobin
• Public Documents Contradict Claim Email Spying Foiled Terror Plot: Defenders of “PRISM” say it stopped subway bombings. But British and American court documents suggest old-fashioned police work nabbed Zazi. by Ben Smith
• NSA surveillance played little role in foiling terror plots, experts say by Ed Pilkington and Nicholas Watt
• Our Drone War Burnout by Pratap Chatterjee
• Obama Killed a 16-Year-Old American in Yemen. Trump Just Killed His 8-Year-Old Sister. by Glenn Greenwald
• Busting Eight Common Excuses for NSA Mass Surveillance by Cindy Cohn and Trevor Timm
• The best books on Drone Warfare recommended by Hugh Gusterson – Really interesting conversation on drone warfare. “We saw in the case of the Iraq war that the American people were largely happy to invade Iraq until the war went really wrong – until Americans started coming back in body bags – and then they turned against it and said that George Bush had been an idiot to invade. The same with Blair. We wouldn’t have the Chilcott report, and the turning of American opinion against the war in Iraq, if it hadn’t been for those 4,000 Americans who died there. They are the hostages of the democratic war-making process, in a sense. But drones have broken that link in the chain. They make possible perpetual war without costs.”
• 41 men targeted but 1,147 people killed: US drone strikes – the facts on the ground by Spencer Ackerman – See chart
• Good Kill – (Ethan Hawke) A drone pilot questions the ethics of his job.
• Eye in the Sky – Drone pilots are about to strike a terrorist target, until a 9-year-old girl walks into the kill zone. Officials debate whether or not to go forward with the strike. I watched this movie at the theater and was perturbed at how immediately (and vocally) exasperated the audience was with the official arguing against the strike.
• A quote from Liam Brown’s Broadcast, a story about a man who a has a microchip installed into his skull so that he can stream his thoughts directly to his subscribers:
‘That’s the trade-off, isn’t it? I get the convenience of free email or knowing how many calories I’ve burned at the gym or whatever and they get to know me a bit better so they can show me more relevant advertising. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me. Besides, I’m not a terrorist or a paedophile. Why should I care …”
“Why should you fucking care? We’re talking about intelligence gathering on an unprecedented scale. Forget data mining. This is mind rape. The end of privacy as we know it. It’s not about advertising, you idiot. It’s about power. Control. Sure, the marketing men might be the first to come knocking, but sooner or later this information is going to end up in the hands of agencies whose only interest is the total suppression of your freedom. In the whole of history, no system of mass surveillance has ever existed that hasn’t ended up being hijacked by malevolent forces. All it would take is one bad election, and suddenly your populist-fascist government has access to the thoughts of every single citizen in the country.”
• Tangentially related: An interesting chapter in SuperFreakonomics: Can a Banker’s Algorithm Help Catch Would-Be Terrorists?