Be Afraid: A Review of "@War"

@War charts the nefarious union of Big Data and Big Surveillance.


| Summer 2015


Shane Harris, call your publicist.

Harris is a persistent and incisive chronicler of the American security state, but there’s a revealing tension between the story he tells and the story his publisher has chosen to market. On its back cover, a review copy of Harris’s new book about the “Military-Internet Complex” describes a tale out of Tom Clancy: “A surprising, page-turning account of how the wars of the future are already being fought today.” In this story of sentinels on the watchtower, Harris “explains what the new cybersecurity regime means for all of us, who spend our daily lives bound to the internet—and are vulnerable to its dangers.” Bad guys are out to get us, but good guys “patrol cyberspace” to “launch computer virus strikes against enemy targets.” Some miserable Hollywood content manufacturer is going to produce exactly this movie in a year or two, and we’ll be stuck watching Harrison Ford run around a command center in a general’s uniform, shouting gibberish about launching the virus.

But this is not the book Harris has written, or at least not the center of it. Instead, @War is a painful and vitally important account of the quiet, pernicious merger—already well advanced—of state power and corporate interests. It’s hard to read this book without feeling a kind of weary disgust. If the purpose of journalism is to arm citizens with information that they can use to act on the political processes that shape their lives, then journalism may not be what this book provides. It reads, instead, like an account of a fatal illness, diagnosed in time for the patient to arrange hospice care.

 



It’s not a simple story, so let’s start by working through a single narrative example. In the last half of 2010, Harris writes, WikiLeaks “was preparing to release potentially embarrassing information on Bank of America, including internal records and documents.” While the whistle-blower site prepared to dent the image of a private corporation, officials at the Justice Department worked to get ahead of the leaks. Lawyers told lawyers to call lawyers: Federal prosecutors urged the bank’s legal team to reach out to a private-sector law office—the Washington, DC, arm of the megafirm Hunton & Williams—that had assembled “a kind of cyber propaganda operation against opponents of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”

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