Saturday, 30 August 2014

Modern Spying

By Calum Davies

‘If there were an invisible cat in that chair, that chair would look empty; but the chair does look empty; therefore there is an invisible cat in it.’

As he quoted C.S. Lewis, David Flitton pointed at his own chair. There was no cat that the audience could see. He then sat on it. If an invisible cat – perhaps the cousin of Schrödinger’s – was indeed lying there, it had just been crushed. There was no noise to indicate this and so I gave Flitton the benefit of the doubt.

Rafael Epstein teaches Chris Berg and Daniel Flitton
how to remove and refrigerate their phone batteries
to prevent government spying (not really).
Spencer Zifcak watches on.
Pic Calum Davies
He had probably not just committed felicide.

But I knew I could not be completely sure.

This was, of course, the former intelligence analyst’s point. If we follow the logic of Lewis’ intentional fallacy, we can assert that anything exists; it is impossible to prove otherwise.

The United States and Australia are, as the entire panel (Spencer Zifcak, Professor of Law at ACU, and three journalists – Rafael Epstein, Chris Berg and Daniel Flitton) agreed, currently applying such logic to ‘terrorism’. Like Weapons of Mass Destruction and (once upon a time) Communism, it is another invisible cat. But it is a little different in that felines are generally not considered threats to national security, which Chris Berg acknowledged was one of if not the most important aspect of government (national security, not cats). Assiduous and insidious, the clandestine wolf named Terrorism could be anywhere and strike at any time.

Under this pretense, the US has been able to act with relative impunity against the supposed terrorist threat. It has used this to justify the explosively contentious overreach by its National Security Agency, and its highly invasive spying into the private lives of just about everyone on the planet. Spencer Zifcak invoked Glenn Greenwald, the main facilitator of the Snowden leaks, when he said that the driving purpose of the NSA is to collect everything; or, as Greenwald himself put it:

"Sniff it all, collect it all, know it all."

Now, as Berg pointed out, threats to ‘national security’ are being used without restraint by the Australian government too, as blanket justification for new laws it wants to introduce that will incriminate whistleblowers and journalists for reporting on any ‘national security’ matter. Yet, it also wants to use potential ‘terrorism’ as an excuse to know everything about us through the proposed metadata retention scheme. Enriching the hypocrisy of their double standards is the fact that Tony Abbot and George Brandis can’t even tell us what metadata is.

This is the state of Modern Spying. The spotlight of government surveillance has shifted from beyond sovereign borders inward to the domestic population itself – but the paranoia of the Cold War remains, and discussion about conspiracy theory was the most intriguing part of the panel.

Right before question time, Flitton reiterated that meaningless terms like 'terrorism' turn a lack of evidence into evidence; if the cat is invisible, it must be there. As Rafael Epstein said, this is "the reason terrorism is such a rubbish word."

As a result, the unknowing public, unable to see through the veil of secrecy, can only conspire. And, as noted by Zifcek, ‘conspiracy theories only thrive in an atmosphere of secrecy,’ whether they’re about terrorism, WMDs, alien dinosaurs from the future, whatever. We can’t tell you anything, the Obama and Abbot administrations tell us, because then the alien dinosaurs will be able to destroy democracy. Better safe than sorry, right?

A woman asked:

"How do you stop the power of the conspiracy theory?"

Flitton responded:

"You can’t."
And in a world where secrecy ineluctably exists, he’s right.

Of course, it’s easy to get carried away by conspiracy. It is the cousin of delusion. Terrorism is a real threat, and to deny it entirely would be as foolish as to think it justifies what it has been used to justify.

Flitton finished his talk by entertaining the thought that it might actually be scarier to think there is no dark and smoky room in which the strings are being pulled.

I disagree. The idea that states operate in a context of higher anarchy limits their power and can free our minds from the immortal oppression of conspiracy. But regardless of our respective positions, some things are undeniably being controlled in secret, and to think that none are would strip us of our desire to keep those in power in check.

The author would like to apologise for not including enough Rafael Epstein in the review and to note that he adores the man.


  1. Great review callum, sounds like it was a fascinating session

    1. Thanks Paul, it was. The ongoing paranoia is worth at least another ticket

    2. Thanks Paul, it was. The ongoing paranoia is worth at least another ticket


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.