Alan Feuer’s amazing Twitter reportage from the trial of El Chapo is a case study of the ambiguous relationship between security, surveillance, and social trust. Much of what we think we know about the emergence of the state and the creation of institutions derives from the problems of long-distance trade, usually in luxury products, in a dangerous environment. This is, of course, almost an exact description of Chapo’s business. Cooperation is essential, but the very value and portability of the product tends to destroy it (to say nothing of its effects), while the prohibition that creates its super-profitability also means that only the fundamentally untrustworthy are likely to get involved.
So he resorted to surveillance and introduced new skills from the wider economy to get a technological advantage. The trust-substitute of surveillance enabled his organization to cooperate more effectively and triumph over its competitors. One way of reading this story is that the temptation of surveillance led him to poison his personal relationships with it, but as Feuer makes clear, they were already so intertwined with business that it doesn’t make much sense to treat them separately.
Chapo gained an enormous advantage from his investment in signals intelligence and information security – he was able to operate as if he trusted people who nobody could trust, almost a supernatural superpower. The price of this was that he had to place enormous trust in his information security function. Rather than worrying about the loyalty of dozens to hundreds of followers, he had reduced the problem to just one follower’s loyalty.
This, after all, is why the NSA hunts sysadmins. It is also a driver of the weird way spy tactics, techniques, and worst of all, ethics are spilling over into wider society; if everyone has to be a security actor, it makes sense to canalize threats and put them under the guard of the professionals, and that inherently makes the professionals more and more subject to classic spying.