How Much Government ‘Bio-Surveillance’ Is Okay?

Throughout history, tyrannical governments have taken freedoms from their citizens openly.  In a country such as America, though, government employees might try to take away freedoms and leisure somewhat secretly, or disguised as something good.

An example might be U.S. federal laws on “biosurveillance,” which allow for “real-time, all-hazards biosurveillance capabilities” and collection of data on humans and threats to humans.

Such laws on using real-time biosurveillance capabilities for “all-hazards,” which apparently means what it says — every type of potential harm to humans — have multiple potential interpretations.

Could some interpretations be used by government employees to support the use of some of the most intrusive technologies possible?  For example, could biosurveillance laws support the use of radio wave surveillance technologies (types of radar) that “see into” homes and have been used by the FBI?  Would government employees simply describe such surveillance as collecting biological data on Americans for “all-hazards” prevention?

In other words, one who does not want to have American freedoms and leisure taken away by government employees might at least try to know the possible secret methods, technologies, sources, and operations of local and federal governments.  One of those technologies is radar that can see into homes and, if improved for use from longer distances, could surveil every movement of a human throughout his life.

This article, though, is about the use of secret or “plain-clothed” government employees throughout America.  They are sometimes referred to as “government agents” or “undercover agents.”  How many, if any, government agents are there throughout America?  And what might they do?

The government keeps those things mostly secret.  There might be, however, some hints provided in the publications of a Biden administration national security official.

President Biden appointed Cass Sunstein, a lawyer and professor, as a national security official in 2021.  Some might know him for is co-authoring the book about entities and governments “nudging” Americans.  The “nudging” concept is itself controversial but beyond the scope of this article; basically, though, as several commentators have explained, government employees might wrongly describe their shoves, gut punches, and mandates as merely nudges.

Another concept supported by Sunstein that requires reiterating is his suggestion to use government agents to infiltrate groups to change the way they think.

In his co-authored article entitled “Conspiracy Theories,” he suggests that the American government respond to conspiracy theories and “extremist groups” by having government agents secretly get into the groups and “by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups, thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity” (page 15).  And “once corrective information is introduced” into those groups, “large numbers of people can be shifted to different views” (page 23).

The article begins by describing extremist groups with conspiracy theories that the authors suggest can be dangerous to government employees.

What is not mentioned, though, is how many groups the U.S. government employees might label as “extremist.”  For example, the FBI reportedly supported the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)’s understanding of at least some Catholics has “hate groups,” while the SPLC has also “essentially suggested that the entire Roman Catholic Church should be considered a ‘hate group.’”

In other words, a government official who suggests that agents will use a method only on “extremist groups” might have millions of Americans in mind.

Sunstein and his co-author first mention that “direct government rebuttals of the reigning conspiracy theory will prove ineffective” and “government will instead do best by using various tactics of cognitive infiltration to break up the polarized information cluster from within” (page 13).  They then elaborate:

Government might undertake (legal) tactics for breaking up the tight cognitive clusters of extremist theories, arguments and rhetoric that are produced by the hard core and reinforce it in turn. One promising tactic is cognitive infiltration of extremist groups. By this we do not mean 1960s-style infiltration with a view to surveillance and collecting information, possibly for use in future prosecutions. Rather, we mean that government efforts might succeed in weakening or even breaking up the ideological and epistemological complexes that constitute these networks and groups.

How might this tactic work? Recall that extremist networks and groups, including the groups that purvey conspiracy theories, typically suffer from a kind of crippled epistemology. Hearing only conspiratorial accounts of government behavior, their members become ever more prone to believe and generate such accounts. Informational and reputational cascades, group polarization, and selection effects suggest that the generation of ever-more-extreme views within these groups can be dampened or reversed by the introduction of cognitive diversity. We suggest a role for government efforts, and agents, in introducing such diversity. Government agents (and their allies) might enter chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic or implications for political action (pages 21-22).

The authors explain that such attempts at “breaking up the ideological and epistemological complexes that constitute these networks and groups” can be done openly or secretly by government agents:

In one variant, government agents would openly proclaim, or at least make no effort to conceal, their institutional affiliations. ... In another variant, government officials would participate anonymously or even with false identities. Each approach has distinct costs and benefits; the second is riskier but potentially brings higher returns. In the former case, where government officials participate openly as such, hard-core members of the relevant networks, communities and conspiracy-minded organizations may entirely discount what the officials say, right from the beginning. The risk with tactics of anonymous participation, conversely, is that if the tactic becomes known, any true member of the relevant groups who raises doubts may be suspected of government connections. Despite these difficulties, the two forms of cognitive infiltration offer different risk-reward mixes and are both potentially useful instruments.

Next, the authors suggest that the real world or physical penetration of groups might be the best option:

There is a similar tradeoff along another dimension: whether the infiltration should occur in the real world, through physical penetration of conspiracist groups by undercover agents, or instead should occur strictly in cyberspace. The latter is safer, but potentially less productive. The former will sometimes be indispensable, where the groups that purvey conspiracy theories (and perhaps themselves formulate conspiracies) formulate their views through real-space informational networks rather than virtual networks.

Finally, the authors suggest how the infiltration will cause large numbers of people to be shifted to different views and break up the groups:

Once corrective information is introduced, large numbers of people can be shifted to different views. If government is able to have credibility, or to act through credible agents, it might well be successful in dislodging beliefs that are held only because no one contradicts them. Likewise, polarization tends to decrease when divergent views are voiced within the group. Introducing a measure of cognitive diversity can break up the epistemological networks and clusters that supply conspiracy theories.

The emphasis should be on “large numbers of people” being “shifted to different views” as a result of undercover government agents secretly penetrating groups and “planting doubts ... and stylized facts.”  

Several questions arise from the suggestion from the author, who is, or at least was, a Biden administration national security official.  One question is, if “large numbers of people might be” influenced by undercover government agents, are there also large numbers of undercover government agents throughout America whose responsibilities are not “law enforcement,” but instead include things like secretly placing “corrective information” into groups?

Image via Picryl.

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