God knows your calling patterns. God knows your friends on Facebook, your pages liked, your rants and your dissenting comments. More – and better than the NSA or FBI – God knows what you think.
Or, if there is no personal God, if that term is just a word made of letters – G-O-D – then what we refer to by the word but that does not exist does not know all these things about us.
The fact is, though, that we do not know which of these states prevails. Are we divinely surveilled by an all-knowing being, all our sins and virtues, our decencies and transgressions known, or do we retain the secrecy of our private, individual, and fallible selves? As long as we do not know, we can pretend what we wish, believe what pleases us, until the day may come, if it ever does, that we have cause, like Job, to say,
My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.
This blind living in the state of surveillance, the surveillance state, provides the story of ultimate import arising from the NSA PRISM and data mining revelations. There are other, related stories deserving of attention, but all of them are iterations of what will further be repeated in our human future whatever the outcome this time around: acts of conscience or betrayal, bad journalism, demagoguery. For too many public voices, however, these subsidiary if genuine subplots have become a distraction from the greater story. They have allowed their perspectives on terrorism or counter-terrorism, on the leaker and the reporters, and on the ideological tendencies these all represent to skew their perception of the significance of technological surveillance in human development.
For some, the prime role of the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald in reporting the story and cooperating with leaker Edward Snowden has determined their view. If Greenwald helped break the story and if any elements of his work and conduct are questionable, then the story itself is first suspect, then readily dismissible. If the story arises from Greenwald’s anti-American animus and programmatic terrorist apologia, then a story, calling into question the sweep and nature of the U.S. counter-terrorism surveillance is fatally tainted.
Greenwald justly produces a level of antagonism among his foes equal to the moral shoddiness and intellectual dishonesty of his work. But the import of the story is independent of his motivation and any mistakes he may have made in reporting it. Greenwald remains an ongoing story in his own right, but the animus toward him should not distract us from greater concerns.
Then there is Edward Snowden and however much the surveillance story can be tainted by tainting him. The Greenwald, Wikileaks, and hactivist elements and sympathizers have crowed about how defenders of secrecy would try to destroy the messenger, for displeasure with the message and the messenger’s allies, and they were right. The effort was immediate and has been relentless.
Snowden did not help himself, certainly. Whatever convenient educational and social deficiencies he offered for the better educated and more established to sneer at and belittle, Snowden might have stood tall and dignified above all his critics had he done only one thing – had he revealed himself at a press conference in Washington D.C. with a lawyer at his side and declared himself righteously prepared to make the case for his actions, in defense of the democratic and constitutional system before which in good faith he would now submit himself. We have, in our civilizational memory the example of Socrates as first precedent. In our national memory, so recently, we have Martin Luther King, Jr.: the enactment of conscientious civil disobedience. Yet it is striking how few of those styling themselves as Snowden’s more cultivated betters even raise this single determinant of a person’s conscience. But we live in a time of so much preening conscience and much less redeeming conscientiousness – conscience without conscientiousness – that so few think how they might place themselves preemptively above assaults on their character, whatever the attacks on their choices.
So Snowden did not behave as the exemplar from whom we should take too serious instruction, and now, over the weekend, there is news via Snowden from the South China Morning Post of NSA spying on Hong Kong and Mainland China and again via Snowden from the Guardian unremarkable but embarrassing news about spying on then Russian President Medvedev while he was in England. Snowden has now unequivocally passed from any claim to protector of American civil liberties to, like his Guardian sponsor, active opponent of the U.S.’s legitimate national security activities.
This now is Edward Snowden’s story, and it, too, will unfold wrapped in folds of sub-plots and counter narratives. But he also is not the greater interest we should have.
Another distracting vein has been the assertion by some that there is, in fact, nothing new in these so-called revelations. These ho-humers dig up a news account from here or there, from six or eight years ago, and say, see – we knew all along, or should have. If we had read the USA Patriot Act, we would have known what was going on.
Nothing to see here. Move along.
These are, at the same time, oddly defensive and retaliatory arguments. At once they seem aimed at defending the government from charges of extraordinary or improper activity – even as government officials are daily claiming that national security has been harmed by revelation of what was not previously known – just as they seem aimed at discrediting the reporting as hype. Neither suggests a clear and proper focus on the deeper issue. It little diminishes the implications of such pervasive surveillance to argue that the citizenry should have gotten it before.
What’s the matter with you? Weren’t you paying attention? Too late. No makeup exams.
Let those who wish argue about the meaning of a phrase in five-year-old news articles or on an NSA power point. Let them bicker about a technical protocol and whether it was previously known. Part of the danger of technology is the confusion of its expertise for deeper knowledge or even wisdom. There is a bigger picture here, and to that picture too we received a contribution this weekend, from the AP: Secret to Prism Program: Even Bigger Data Seizure. What is a major source of this bigger seizure? The undersea cables that carry so much internet and teledata and that the NSA requires no FISA permission to tap.
The government has said it minimizes all conversations and emails involving Americans. Exactly what that means remains classified. But former U.S. officials familiar with the process say it allows the government to keep the information as long as it is labeled as belonging to an American and stored in a special, restricted part of a computer.
That means Americans’ personal emails can live in government computers, but analysts can’t access, read or listen to them unless the emails become relevant to a national security investigation.
The government doesn’t automatically delete the data, officials said, because an email or phone conversation that seems innocuous today might be significant a year from now.
What’s unclear to the public is how long the government keeps the data. That is significant because the U.S. someday will have a new enemy. Two decades from now, the government could have a trove of American emails and phone records it can tap to investigative whatever Congress declares a threat to national security.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has compared this to a vast library of books and, redefining the word “collect,” has argued, in defense of the charge that he has already lied to congress when denying that the NSA “collects” data on Americans:
To me collection of U.S. persons’ data would mean taking the book off the shelf and opening it up and reading it.
Consider some parallels. With or without a warrant, government or law enforcement representatives enter your home and collect, that is, gather up and take away items from your life and store it. They do not, they claim, look at it. Would you not consider the government to have pried into your life and collected information on you? The government might not then view and process the information, but it has, of course, collected it by every normal meaning of the word, unless you are a government official engaged in the kind of dissimulation government officials engage in to cover up lies. More – most vitally – this information is now in the government’s possession. Officials may claim that there are rules they would have to follow to access that information – to take that book off the shelf – but two options of personal autonomy are now foreclosed to you: any real meaning to your grant of assent to view the information (they already have it) or, in extremis, even to resist the “collection” of it (they already have it).
Imagine this scenario, analogous to the telephony metadata collection. Via multiple legal means, including the basic security camera that is beginning to record us everywhere no less than NSA intercepts, government agencies record the activity to and from, in and out of, every physical address in the United States, both of physical mail and of people. No attached record is maintained of who lives or works at these addresses, but for untold years, the interconnecting movements between these addresses are simply recorded.
The records go on a “shelf.”
Good people, otherwise smart people are assuring the public of the safeguards built into these processes, as if history, including recent and very contemporary history in the U.S. itself, is not replete with violations and abuse of the public trust in security matters. The Church Committee was only short of forty years ago. Just six years ago there were revelations of massive FBI abuse of the post 9/11 National Security Letter process.
One can believe ardently in, and argue with great coherence for, the necessity and moral legitimacy of counter-terrorist espionage and surveillance activities and still recognize the magnitude of the moment and the deep consideration necessary as we face it. Some slopes are actually slippery: what is required in the warning is some evidence of the accumulating ice.
The worst responses to the civilizational transformation that awaits us are the stupid-blasé and the conventional-cynical. Of the former, we have this example from Chez Pazienza.
It isn’t because you never know who’s watching you. It’s because everyone is watching you. You’re always under surveillance. Everyone is connected to the social media hive mind. Whether you’re jacked in yourself, by yourself, putting your own information out there for all to see, or the person next to you is commenting on what’s going on in his or her general vicinity and you just happen to be a part of the action, you have no expectation of privacy anymore.
You can let this paralyze you. You can let it make you crazy. Or you can let go.
You have no idea where the guards of this prison are or how many of them there are at any one time. But you always know they’re there. You have no idea exactly who’s watching you. But you know you’re being watched. That’s the Panopticon.
But if you don’t know who’s watching, whether it’s the NSA or the guy sitting across the street from you on a date, is it really that big a deal? Remember: distance and ignorance. Widen the scope big enough and far enough — make the eyes invisible — and who really has time to care?
Let go. Let it wash over you. Enjoy it. The matrix is fun. Who needs bodies? Who needs reality? (And hey, man, what’s reality anyway? Know what I mean?) If everyone is watching you, it’s like no one is –get it? While their eyes were watching God, God snoozed.
Until he wakes up.
Somehow, under much more low-tech surveillance, the minions behind the Iron Curtain did not discover such a bearable lightness of being. Pazienza, it appears, is ready to love Colossus.
Of conventional thinking, always ready to dismiss the extraordinary development or solution, outside of any equivalents of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, you will find no greater repository than government officials and their establishment political journalist compeers, who are often prone to consort with conventional thinking’s evil twin, cynicism. Those who do not are prone to think as if the dysfunctional, striving liberal topia that is the United States of America is the end of history, and other than the GOP trying to roll back abortion rights in state legislatures and reconfigure Jim Crow, nothing calamitously degenerative can ever happen to American democracy until, one presumes, the Sun burns out.
It would do well to remind, then, that in the aftermath of 9/11, when government security professionals felt challenged by the demand to imagine the threats we might face, they turned, of all places, to Hollywood. Or look back at the record of diplomats and science fiction writers and check who has had the better record of anticipating what the future would deliver, especially through technology.
We have been called on the plane to look out the window, and even it was by some guy from a Twilight Zone episode, there is frost on the wing. It’s time for deicing.