On the importance of boundaries

On the importance of Boundaries: NSA's grave error and the future social order 

by Rodrigo Fernos

Robert Frost once wrote that "Good fences make good neighbors".  While this might seem like a quaint notion to a National Security Agency (NSA) official, there is much more truth to this literary allusion than might be initially supposed.  We might make other artistic allusions to this principle, as in the case of the science fiction 'cyborg', which lacks complete autonomy and is controlled by a central mainframe.  The absence of fences suggests the loss of autonomy, and the potential for consequent abuses resulting thereby. 

In its defense of the security and well being of United States citizens, it has recently been revealed that the NSA has embarked on one of the most comprehensive domestic surveillance programs in the history of that nation, largely a result of advances in computing technology during the last two decades.  It has given the ability to create an eye over all of the communications of its citizens, creating in fact the the fictionalized 'Big Brother' of George Orwell's novel -1984-, written in 1945.  One might even suggest that it is a product of the tendency for middle aged men in power to view its 'subalterns' as a large family, and thereby projecting these presumptions onto societies with millions of individuals.  The father protects his daughter by closely monitoring her activities, yet as far away as possible to give her a sense of independence and autonomy.

But societies are complex organisms that operate under completely different principles than those presumed by NSA leaders. (It is for this very reason why 'sociology' came into being in the first place at the end of the 19th century, to study society at the macrocosmic-aggregate level as opposed to the individualized local view.)  This brief essay is an attempt to expose the fallacy of such presumptions.  Good fences are a requirement of all healthy social environments.

Biological considerations

One of the best evidence for the necessity of 'boundaries' and 'fences' in the social realm comes from evolution.  Biological structures are replete with important fences, which are not just literary and fantastical allusions, but are core requirements for the healthy functioning of all biological organisms.  Remove these boundaries, and the organism basically is brought to a path of demise and destruction.

Since computers form a type of 'external neural network' for modern societies, looking at neurology provides some clues.  So important is the neurological network for human well being, that these are encapsulated in a layer that is completely autonomous and independent of the rest of the skeletal structure (i.e. muscle system, blood vessel system, etc).  The neurological layer exists in its own set of fluids and dynanmics, which are discrete (but linked to) the rest fo the body. This membrane helps protect that internal nervous system from external toxic substances that might casually enter the regular blood stream.

It is also interesting to point out that female estrus in humans is hidden from ordinary sight, thus enabling 'human females' (as opposed to other mammalian females) to lead lives that are less subject to external male encroachment that they otherwise would be.  The vast majority of non-human mammalian females are subject to the inevitable ebb and flow of hormones, and the reproductive functions that occur thereby; certain cycles of the menses lead to periods of intense activity, the female mammalian brain itself being affected by such hormones.

Another example that might be drawn from biology is the counterargument.  Diseases are more often than not caused by entities that have hijacked the internal natural process of healthy being.  All viruses, from the common cold to HIV, hijack the internal dynamics of the cell by substituting parts of the cells DNA with its own, typical for the benefit of the former at the expense of the latter.  Even though the severity of the process varies greatly, the underlying dynamic is the same.  The same might be said for cancer, whereby the internal cellular DNA has been hijacked to alter natural bodily rhythms and processes. 

Social considerations

One of the key reasons why the idea of domestic spying is gravely erred is simply because it rests on the notion that the leader has absolute control and power over bureaucratic processes--a notion which to anyone that knows about local politics in Puerto Rico knows to be a joke.  

Curiously, presidents as Richard Nixon were very well aware of the fragile power that they actually hold.  During the recently released Watergate recordings pertaining to the Ellsberg case of the 1970s (Pentagon Papers), Nixon obviously feared the erosion of his power over the governmental apparatus.  The same might be said about the recent case of the Boston mafia don Whitey Bulger, who was in allegiance with FBI agents.  It was proven that FBI agents had been corrupted by the very individuals they were supposed to be monitoring.  The problem of the 'rogue spy' is a constant source of contention within agencies as the CIA, FBI, and others who wield so much social power.

One should not presume these to be isolated incidents, but rather to presume that all bureaucracies will always be subject to such abuse, and hence that the only thing the extension of such power does is to provide opportunities for subalterns to grossly violate civil rights whenever they have the chance.  (One might suggest that one of the key problems of the egyptian government was based in part on these dynamics: the projection of the small family unit onto a complex national entity, and hence consequent abuses by subalterns who did not see themselves subject to the same laws and regulations as the rest of the community. Upon the expansion of communications within the community, and the greater awareness of such processes, the vast double standard became a point of contention between its citizenry and the government.)

One might again suggest a counter argument, in a positive sense. Privacy is a key necessary benefit for any and all innovation, and is what characterized the 'pre internet' era of radical computing innovations in the post WWII world.   It is the very absence of privacy, which grossly contributes to economic stagnation in many second and third world countries.  A point in case might be made for Puerto Rico.  Although the island's constitution explicitly prohibits the wiretapping of telephone communications, it in fact happens on a regular basis by corporate, and goverment actors--justified partly as a result of the islands drug and homicidal statistics.  However, the very tools that are used to counteract these criminal activities at the same time subvert its innovative capabilities.

Historical considerations

Yet the historical record is replete with examples as to why true privacy is such an important criteria for society's well-being. 

The protestant revolution was a direct by-product to the absence of privacy which existed within the Catholic Church, requiring all faithful observants to regularly 'confess their sins' to an eager priest.  Yet, as many nineteenth century Chilean intellectuals pointed out, 'confession' opened a door to state abuse; the notion of 'God' was merely a pretext used by the Hispanic colonial state in the same manner that the computer is being today used by the NSA. "La palabra subvierte la verdad", wrote Lastarria. 

Ironically, one of the key fundamental postures of the Protestant revolution was the autonomy of the mind, in this particular situation to read the Bible and to interpret the book according to an individual's own dictates--as opposed to interpretations which came from 'high above' in Rome and the Pope. This is extremely ironic given that the NSA abuses have been established by characteristically white anglo-saxon protestant culture.

We might take a 'modern' approach and look at the priests counterpart in this sense--the therapist, be they in psychiatry or psychology. Similar function, only in a more 'actualized' and 'modernized version'. (More on that later.)


The notion that others might be listening in might not appear at first to be such a big deal; after all, the vast majority of the time, nothing really bad seems to happen.  But it is via the indirect influence of personal and private information that the noxious hand of third parties, state or non-state actors, that make itself felt into society.  

Let me take a very simple and trite example.  Girls often keep diaries of their emotional states and lives; 'I felt this', 'this or that happened to me', 'I met Bobby', etc, etc. etc.  Someone wishing to influence this girl might get a hold of the diary and come to learn that the girl has a special proclivity for M&Ms, or that she favors the color orange over the color blue.  This is all trivial and irrelevant, until once comes to realize that acquiring this private information provides undue influence over the particular individual.  The boy, in our hypothetical case, might 'feign' to like M&Ms, to gain favor with said girl in order to become her boyfriend.  While it might be argued that 'everyone likes M&M's (who doesn't?) is beyond the point; the boy has gained an advantage over his rivals by obtaining 'insider information', which unnaturally distorted the outcome of what would have been the encounter and true meeting of their 'souls' or 'minds'.  An immediate gain was obtained at the expense of a long term loss, given the artificialized 'mutual interests' feigned by one of the parties.

Now imagine a much more nefarious scenario.  Not only are you obtaining personalized information about the individual via a technology which purports itself to be private, but you combine this with psychiatry and medicine to alter the outcome of natural 'organic' social dynamics.  Citizens become hunted foxes without any means of escape in this scenario. This depiction is a much more real situation, often undertaken by individuals who have no scruples whatsoever to use 'any means' necessary to kill or 'neutralize' their opponents.  One might refer to it as the most notorious institutionalized criminal activity there can exist.  

The National Security Agency's (NSA) 'see all policy' is dangerous precisely because of these circumstances.  It opens the door to abuse by those subalterns who hold onto no moral qualms whatsoever about the abuse of power that they would not otherwise have.  If NSA policy makers, including the President, believe that they can actually control this machinery, they are utterly mistaken (and naive) about the control they actually hold over the agencies below them.  Again, while this might actually happen in the dynamics of a family with a limited number of individuals to watch over, in the context of national scope with hundreds of millions of individuals, it is a recipe for disaster.

In this sense, the best policy is that which has been described by Steve Gibson of "SecuriyNow" podcast.  An old-time programmer who codes directly in 'deep computer' assembly language, Gibson's key security philosophy is referred to as TNO: TRUST NO ONE.  What this means is that, at every step of the way, information is protected from third parties and available only to those who generated the information or to the intended recipients of their messages.  All communication is encrypted, not just from the outside world, but from the very companies that provide those services.  It is for this reason why Gibson supports the cloud platform "SpiderOak" as opposed to the more commonly used "Dropbox", simply because Dropbox retains all keys the the information contained on its servers, whereas SpiderOak does not.

This is a policy that should be broadly applied to ALL telecommunications currently in use; it would create in fact, what as been presumed all along over our everyday 'neural' technologies.  

Good fences make good neighbors indeed.

© 2014 Rodrigo fernos riddick