Gen Y's Revenge - Opening The Back Door ?  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

My latest readings on the NSA scandal are 3 interesting pieces from Charlie Stross (Snowden leaks: the real take-home), Bruce Schneier (who is now writing for the FT and The Guardian) (The spooks need new ways to keep their secrets safe) and The Guardian's media blog, talking to Seymour Hersh about the woeful state of the American media (Seymour Hersh on Obama, NSA and the 'pathetic' American media) which included an interesting quip about the official story (one I've never believed for an instant) about the death of Osama Bin Laden "Nothing's been done about that story, it's one big lie, not one word of it is true".

Stross and Schneier argue that the NSA has a big problem emerging, with the revelations from Manning and Snowden being just a taste of things to come. They argue this is due to 2 factors - the first one being the total lack of job security that Gen Y has grown up with and the second being techno-libertarian culture which values openness and transparency above pretty much all else.

I'm a Gen Xer and thus entered the workforce in a world where a permanent job for life was still a relatively common occurrence. My political leanings were entirely neoliberal however (being based pretty much exclusively on what I read in The Economist and Murdoch's national paper here, "The Australian") and after watching the waves of restructuring in the late 1980's and early 1990's I quickly decided that only a fool would expect to stay in the same organisation for a long period of time and happily did (well paid) contract work for the next couple of decades, with my expectations of my employers being nothing more than being paid at the end of each week. This worked out well for me - however I was lucky to have in demand skills, worked in a growing industry and was happy to move to wherever the work was.

The members of Gen Y seem to have far less bargaining power (growing industries and skills shortages being much rarer in the post GFC world) and thus for them financial security is far more elusive.

As Stross puts it, the problem is this (he doesn't explore the techno-libertarian culture angle that Schneier mentions) :

The big government/civil service agencies are old. They're products of the 20th century, and they are used to running their human resources and internal security processes as if they're still living in the days of the "job for life" culture; potential spooks-to-be were tapped early (often while at school or university), vetted, then given a safe sinecure along with regular monitoring to ensure they stayed on the straight-and-narrow all the way to the gold watch and pension. Because that's how we all used to work, at least if we were civil servants or white collar paper pushers back in the 1950s.

But things don't work that way any more. A huge and unmentionable side-effect of the neoliberal backlash of the 1970s was the deregulation of labour markets and the deliberate destruction of the job for life culture, partly as a lever for dislodging unionism and the taproots of left-wing power in the west (yes, it was explicit class war by the rich against the workers), and partly because a liquid labour market made entrepreneurial innovation and corporate restructuring easier ...

Today, around 70% of the US intelligence budget is spent on outside contractors. And it's a big budget — well over $50Bn a year. Some chunks go on heavy metal (the National Reconnaissance Office is probably the biggest high-spending agency you've never heard of: they build spy satellites the size of double-decker buses and have so many Hubble-class space telescopes cluttering up their attic that they donated a couple to NASA in 2012), but a lot goes on people. People to oil the machines. People who work for large contracting organizations. Organizations who increasingly rely on contractors rather than permanent labour, because of buzz-words like "flexibility" and "labour market liquidity".

Here's the problem: they're now running into outside contractors who grew up in Generation X or Generation Y.

Let's leave aside the prognostications of sociologists about over-broad cultural traits of an entire generation. The key facts are: Generation X's parents expected a job for life, but with few exceptions Gen Xers never had that — they're used to nomadic employment, hire-and-fire, right-to-work laws, the whole nine yards of organized-labour deracination. Gen Y's parents are Gen X. Gen Y has never thought of jobs as permanent things. Gen Y will stare at you blankly if you talk about loyalty to their employer; the old feudal arrangement ("we'll give you a job for life and look after you as long as you look out for the Organization") is something their grandparents maybe ranted about, but it's about as real as the divine right of kings. Employers are alien hive-mind colony intelligences who will fuck you over for the bottom line on the quarterly balance sheet. They'll give you a laptop and tell you to hot-desk or work at home so that they can save money on office floorspace and furniture. They'll dangle the offer of a permanent job over your head but keep you on a zero-hours contract for as long as is convenient. This is the world they grew up in: this is the world that defines their expectations.

To Gen X, a job for life with the NSA was a probably-impossible dream — it's what their parents told them to expect, but few of their number achieved. To Gen Y the idea of a job for life is ludicrous and/or impossible.

This means the NSA and their fellow swimmers in the acronym soup of the intelligence-industrial complex are increasingly reliant on nomadic contractor employees, and increasingly subject to staff churn. There is an emerging need to security-clear vast numbers of temporary/transient workers ... and workers with no intrinsic sense of loyalty to the organization. For the time being, security clearance is carried out by other contractor organizations that specialize in human resource management, but even they are subject to the same problem: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

We human beings are primates. We have a deeply ingrained set of cultural and interpersonal behavioural rules which we violate only at social cost. One of these rules, essential for a tribal organism, is bilaterality: loyalty is a two-way street. (Another is hierarchicality: yield to the boss.) Such rules are not iron-bound or immutable — we're not robots — but our new hive superorganism employers don't obey them instinctively, and apes and monkeys and hominids tend to revert to tit for tat quite easily when unsure of their relative status. Perceived slights result in retaliation, and blundering, human-blind organizations can slight or bruise an employee's ego without even noticing. And slighted or bruised employees who lack instinctive loyalty because the culture they come from has spent generations systematically destroying social hierarchies and undermining their sense of belonging are much more likely to start thinking the unthinkable.

Edward Snowden is 30: he was born in 1983. Generation Y started in 1980-82. I think he's a sign of things to come.

PS: Bradley Chelsea Manning is 25.

After pondering this for a little while I wondered what the next Gen Y whistleblower to emerge could do that could top Snowden's revelations, given that almost every conceivable form of surveillance now seems to have been exposed as not only being possible but being done (and abused) routinely (OK - I haven't yet read any stories about the passive video and audio streams available through all phones and tablets being routinely tapped and recorded yet but I'm assuming it could and possibly does happen as well).

After thinking about this for a while I eventually concluded that the next big scandal could be one that could have far more real world impact than the current round of revelations (which are going to have a lasting effect on American technology providers over the next decade as foreign and multinational entities start trying to attain some level of information privacy that they don't enjoy today).

My thinking goes like this - if all our technology platforms now have backdoors built into them, what happens if some whistleblower decides to make public the mechanisms for accessing these backdoors ? Is there some procedure on the shelf that will allow a (relatively) rapid rollout of fixes to close the backdoors (and the cynic in me assumes, install new ones) ? Or is this just a hacker's wet dream waiting to come true...

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