Embracing NSA Mass Surveillance: A Thought Experiment
Edward Snowden is not the first time that a whistleblower has told us that all of our communications are already being monitored without consent. However, it is first time that profit-driven media outlets have started to argue for the merits of mass surveillance. I am disappointed in the complacency of the media towards mass violations of privacy, but this development also gives me great hope. This represents an enormous ideological step forward in our public discourse. The idea that communications interception was the norm was widely understood by anyone who cared to do the research for many years now. Up to now the idea of discussing it openly was widely held back by accusations of paranoiac tendencies. Our media culture has a tendency to marginalize the informed. We can see a great example of this when the ostensibly apolitical pitchfork magazine criticized a hip hop artist for making a song about US government surveillance (MIA – The Message.) Snowden has brought this idea to the mainstream in the social consciousness. It is no longer a fringe idea to understand the reality of total surveillance. Pitchfork magazine publicly apologized to MIA.
The right to privacy is a fundamental pillar of a free egalitarian society. I’m far from convinced that the threat of militant terror acts is so great that it warrants total communications surveillance on earth. The idea of storing every single text message, phone call, e-mail, and private message gives me the creeps. I don’t think its necessary or desirable. However I don’t think that its enough to simply oppose or support the surveillance. I think that those of us that oppose the surveillance should also be prepared to craft policy for the post-surveillance reality. The communications have already been stored, the policy is likely going to continue for years with or without our consent, so it is pragmatic for us to be able to ‘click in’ to this post-surveillance paradigm as a thought experiment if nothing else.
As we are intelligent engaged citizens we must not only critique surveillance in the abstract ‘surveillance states are bad for citizens’ paradigm, we must also be prepared to critique surveillance in the “this specific surveillance state isn’t good enough for citizens” paradigm.
Having made my position against mass surveillance clear, I am going to for the rest of this pretend that the national security justifications for total surveillance are proportionate and rational. Under the premise that total surveillance is required to prevent anti-state terrorist acts on civilian targets there are still pragmatic critiques to be made for the betterment of the existing systems. If we accept it as the ongoing reality that we live in a surveillance state, we must ask: What is the best possible version of this surveillance state that we could inhabit? The post-surveillance society is a different legislative beast entirely than the world we grew up in. This could be an age where the types of secrets protected by law are severely diminished.
The first set of post-surveillance policies should be considered under the banner of reducing risk of abuse of privilege. When you consider the existence of a somewhat comprehensive record of each politician’s online history, the capacity for the private surveillance industry to blackmail sitting politicians into approving larger surveillance budgets should be seen as a near-certainty. The capacity for beneficiaries of the military-industrial complex or other private interest groups to use surveillance records to blackmail and marginalize other reformist progressive leaders should also be a cause for alarm. If we are going to have universal surveillance there need to be explicit laws for dealing with these types of cases. To use the surveillance record for blackmail should be considering a disgusting and reprehensible thing. I am dared to say, for effect, that perhaps the punishment for blackmailing someone with your privileged access to surveillance infrastructure should be punishable by American ‘enhanced interrogation’.
If it is possible to mine meta-data to look for patterns associated with domestic terrorism, it is possible to mine meta-data for organized crime and political and corporate corruption. This is not a more radical suggestion than using the information to combat terrorism. There are patterns in data that can be associated with different types of crimes. This is the basic idea behind the NSA’s program. The frightening but also potentially useful extension of this could be approximated to Phillip K. Dick’s concept of ‘precrime.’ It’s not a stretch to suggest that technicians could analyze data corresponding to mass murderers or date rapists and build a profile of web activity that suggests a tendency towards certain crimes or other actions. The potential for this type of profiling to be misused is enormous and it’s essential in a post-surveillance society to criminalize that use of profiling outside of reducing violent crime and white collar crime that is contrary to public interest.
Even in the utopian dream of seeing a new party into office on a platform of reclaiming privacy- it would not be enough to end the programs, delete the information on the servers, and make it illegal to store data again this way in the future. Too often the political forces of good reduce their accomplishments to merely preventing and reversing horrible political events by opposing parties. Interest groups use this tactic to wear down ideological participants in politics.
We must be active in our goodness. We can’t simply set our sights on deleting information (a type of book burning) as the pinnacle of justice. As long as the records are going to exist, there are additional types of information that can be extracted to make the process more justifiable.
The second set of post-surveillance policies should be considered under the banner of aiding the justice system. There are going to be scores of defendants in the next decade who are going to be found guilty of crimes they did not commit and sentenced to jail time while information that could exonerate them sits on a server in Hawaii. There should be mechanisms to pull select data from the record to aid in criminal cases with the consent of the involved parties. If someone charged with a crime is willing to provide his complete phone and text records to the process of determining his innocence, he should be free to do that.
This information could prove to be invaluable to criminal investigations on political or banking corruption, businesses that undermine national security, and to understand and reform economic institutions like the military industrial complex without market panic. It could be used to find instances of criminals who got off scot free bragging about their crimes and free innocent people from jail who are wrongfully accused.
In some senses, this surveillance cannot be undone. A public announcement that the process had been halted would not restore public confidence in communications privacy. These events may have stained technology with a type of naturalist paranoia for the rest of our lifetimes, but we must resist the escapist urge to treat deleting and ceasing retention to be the solution to our problems. Our problems are complex and far-reaching. Our most important problems are shared. This information is capable of helping us solve shared problems more effectively. The fact is there is cultural and historical data here with no known parallel on these servers. Deleting their contents is like burning the Library of Alexandria. Imagine burning the sole copies of the private letters of Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare, Mark Twain. The value of this information to historians is unquestionable.
To look at this through a radical lens for a moment, what would the remix-art of the security-camera-wiretap society look like? What music could Girl Talk make with access to Dick Cheney’s private phone conversations? If I give you a false dichotomy between freedom of expression and freedom to privacy- which would you choose?
Honestly, art kids, internet political people, what do you choose? I choose expression. It’s not a contest.
There is also the silver lining that comforts me most. I do love attention. Our online participation may have some permanence. We are actors on the stage of history, and every line is being recorded. When I realize I am on stage, I start performing. Your audience is the future!
When the present is ancient history and the records of the present are freed into the public domain you will have written a story with every e-mail and text that you have ever sent. Every selfie and anonymous forum post. Ha-ha! The internet is serious business.