The NSA’s illegal warrantless wiretapping program. The building of the massive NSA data center in Utah to permanently store copies of all digital communication sent around the world. The UK government’s “Communications Data Bill” to monitor emails, instant messages and other personal information. What was dismissed as crazy conspiracy theory just over a decade ago has become, in this post-9/11 era, the all-too-familiar stuff of newspaper headlines and talking head reportage.
In fact, it was about a decade ago that the tactic of the intelligence agencies seemed to change. Instead of keeping their activities classified–referring to the NSA as “No Such Agency,” for example, or officially denying the existence of Echelon–the government increasingly began shoving this information in the public’s face.
Perhaps the scariest thing about something like the Total Information Awareness Office is not merely that it was proposed in the first place, or that it incorporated such blatantly creepy Orwellian imagery to convey its true nature and purpose, but that, as we sit here 10 years later, and as the core functions of the TIA office are now being openly performed by the NSA, DHS and other governmental agencies, people are now actively making excuses for this nightmarish police state.
“If you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear” has always been the rallying cry for those who are too afraid of questioning presumed governmental authority to speak out against the surveillance state and the implied assumption of guilt that goes along with it. With feigned bemusement these moral midgets inevitably ask “What’s so bad about the government spying on you, anyway?”
The answer, of course, is that the very question implies that the agencies tasked with carrying out this constant Big Brother surveillance are themselves above reproach, shining lights of moral rectitude who would never abuse this incredible power for nefarious ends. For the unimaginative out there, Hollywood yarns like “Enemy of the State” have provided fictional examples of what can go wrong if someone, somewhere, abuses this power of information and surveillance to target an innocent person in the wrong place at the wrong time.
To be sure, the power that these technologies give for agencies, or corrupt groups within those agencies, to destroy the lives of targeted individuals, is itself a fitting answer to the question of why government surveillance should be troubling to us. But beyond what can happen to specific, targeted individuals in such a scenario, however, is a much larger question: What if this data, our emails, our phone calls, our credit card transactions, our social media posts, our cell phone GPS logs, and all of the hundreds of other pieces of data that are admittedly being collected on us every day, were being fed into a database so gargantuan it contains a digital version of every single person on the planet? And what if that database were being used by the Department of Defense to war game various scenarios, from public reactions to natural disasters to the likelihood of civil unrest in the wake of a declaration of martial law?
Remarkably, this is precisely what is happening.
It is called the “Sentient World Simulation.” The program’s aim, according to its creator, is to be a “continuously running, continually updated mirror model of the real world that can be used to predict and evaluate future events and courses of action.” In practical terms that equates to a computer simulation of the planet complete with billions of “nodes” representing every person on the earth.
The project is based out of Purdue University in Indiana at the Synthetic Environment for Analysis and Simulations Laboaratory. It is led by Alok Chaturvedi, who in addition to heading up the Purdue lab also makes the project commercially available via his private company, Simulex, Inc. which boasts an array of government clients, including the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice, as well as private sector clients like Eli Lilly and Lockheed Martin.
Chatruvedi’s ambition is to create reliable forecasts of future world events based on imagined scenarios. In order to do this, the simulations “gobble up breaking news, census data, economic indicators, and climactic events in the real world, along with proprietary information such as military intelligence.” Although not explicitly stated, the very type of data on digital communications and transactions now being gobbled up by the NSA, DHS and other government agencies make ideal data for creating reliable models of every individuals’ habits, preferences and behaviors that could be used to fine-tune these simulations and give more reliable results. Using this data, the SEAS Laboratory and its Sentient World Simulation offshoot are able to create detailed, operable real-time simulations of at least 62 nations. “The Iraq and Afghanistan computer models,” according to a 2007 Register report on the project, “each has about five million individual nodes representing things such as hospitals, mosques, pipelines, and people.”
At the time of initial reports on the program five years ago, there were only 62 country-level simulations being run by the US Department of Defense. These simulations grouped humans into composites, with 100 individuals acting as a single node. But already at that time, the US Army had used the systems to create a one-to-one level simulation of potential Army recruits. The ultimate aim would be to archive enough data on each individual to be able to make a computer model of everyone on the planet, one that could be used to predict the behaviors and reactions of every single person in the event of various scenarios.
The program can be used to predict what would happen in the event of a large scale tsunami, for example, or how people would react during a bioterror attack. Businesses can use the models to predict how a new product would fare in the market, what kind of marketing plans would be most effective, or how best to streamline a company’s organization.
The original concept paper for the project was published in 2006 and in 2007 it was reported that both Homeland Security and the Defense Department were already using the system to simulate the American public’s reaction to various crises. In the intervening five years, however, there has been almost no coverage at all of the Sentient World Simulation or its progress in achieving a model of the earth.
There is a very good chance that these types of systems are, at least for the moment, pure quackery. Computers are only as valuable as their programming, after all, and the algorithms required to accurately predict responses in chaotic systems with multiple, dimly-understood variables is orders of magnitude beyond what is currently possible. Or is it? One of the great ironies of our time, as Glenn Greenwald goes on to point out in his speech on the surveillance state, is that although we live in a time when it is possible for nebulous government agencies to know every detail of your life, from what you ate for breakfast to where you shopped last night to who your friends are, we are also living in an age of unprecedented ignorance about what are our own governments are actually doing.
This is the heart of the matter. Somehow we are expected to go along with the sophomoric sophism that “If we have nothing to hide then we have nothing to fear,” yet at the same time we are asked to believe that the government must keep all manner of information secret from the public in order to carry out its work of “protecting” that public.
If the government has nothing to hide, then why doesn’t it release the notes, memoranda and findings of the 9/11 Commission in full and unredacted?
Why doesn’t it release the records of the JFK assassination investigation instead of arguing, as it is, that those records should once again be removed from a declassification review that is to take place in 2013, 50 years after the assassination itself took place?
Why doesn’t it release the full audit trail of what banks received the emergency TARP funds and in what amounts?
Is it because, after all, the government does have something to hide from the public that are its ostensible masters? Is it because the old maxim that “Knowledge is power” is more true than we could ever know, and that the government’s one-way insistence on transparency for the citizens and opacity for itself is a reflection of the power that it holds over us?
The Sentient World Simulation is just one example of one program run by one company for various governmental and Fortune 500 clients. But it is a significant peek behind the curtain at what those who are really running our society want: complete control over every facet of our lives achieved through a complete invasion of everything that was once referred to as “privacy.” To think that this is the only such program that exists, or even that we have any significant details about the ways that the SWS has already been used, would be hopelessly naive.
So where does this leave a public that is at such a disadvantage in this information warfare? A public that is effectively told that anything and everything they do, say or buy, can and will be catalogued by the a.i. control grid even as the details of that grid are to be kept from them? Unfortunately there is no easy way back from the precipice that we were ushered toward with the creation of the national security state and the passage of the National Security Act of 1947. Perhaps we have already stepped over that precipice and there is no going back in the current political paradigm. These are things for an informed, aware, knowledgeable citizenry to decide through a societal dialogue over the nature of and importance of “privacy.”
But without a general awareness that programs like the Sentient World Simulation even exist, what hope do we have in counteracting it?