The Banality of Privacy: Spinning the NSA's Espionage of the Human Race

The collective responses to the dramatic revelations of NSA mass surveillance feel like the well-worn plot of a classic movie. The story reminds me of the government's admission a few years back that Iraq did not, after all, have weapons of mass destruction. By the time it was admitted, everybody had already figured out the emperor was naked. But there was something about the formal acknowledgement that gave us permission to finally wrestle with the reality we had already suspected overwhelmingly.

Those of us who make a habit of dissent have gotten used to this frustrating complacency. It demonstrates that we as a social body don't trust ourselves, that the complex of media, government, academia, and business -- otherwise known as the state -- that proports to lead us can be better described as creating and curating our reality. This insight renders many radicals outright misanthropic, but I tend to approach our apathy sympathetically, regarding our behavior as a kind of learned helplessness inculcated by decades of spiritually arresting mediation. When political expediency necessitates disclosure, we don't know what to do with it, much like paroled prisoners who don't know how to live on the outside.

So when the school assembly is over and the principal has made her announcements, thank God the pundits are there to round us up and lead us back to our homerooms, single file. Our passive consumption of pundits' reactions give us a false sense of agency, as if somehow the variety of spins from which to choose is itself empowering. After all, we don't have time in our busy lives to mentally deal with this, let alone exercise our inherent duty to apprehend it. Better to signal our relevancy by choosing our coping mechanism from a buffet of cynicism, jingoist indignation, reformist compromise, or handwringing resignation.

And so it is with the NSA story. As far as I can tell, we're being provided a number of templates that can help us integrate this newly certified reality into our individual matrices, including:

  1. Mass surveillance is an acceptable encroachment on our privacy.
  2. Mass surveillance requires appropriate oversight or a national conversation to protect our privacy.
  3. Mass surveillance is an unacceptable encroachment on our privacy.

You didn't see it, but you just got jammed. The way we're encouraged to cope with this is to make it about privacy: to turn inwards, take stock of our personal inner domain, and decide just how much of our lives can be offered up to the state. Large scale, bureaucratic intrusion into our personal lives is a given, but we can fill out a customer response card if we have any comments about the degree of the intrusion. If this is about privacy, the onus is on us to define its limits, to guide our servant institutions to the right policies that will protect our newly cordoned-off personal space.

It's in this way that pundits can claim that our ubiquitous sharing on social media validates such large scale, coordinated exploitation. Just like the rape victim was "asking for it" because of what she wore at the time of her attack, we're "asking for it" because our online sharing habits have been deemed unjudicious. They switch from condemning the aggressor to blaming the victim, and they do it because facing up to the cultural inertia behind the aggression risks exposing the perniciousness of the status quo. And so they invent a clever distraction about what the limits of privacy should be -- as if that were the only limits with which we should be concerned. It's like fighting rape by starting a conversation about the definition of tasteful attire.

Well, let me provide a counterspin that I hope is destablizing: when it comes to this matter, I don't give a goddamn about privacy. It's no more relevant to this story than the big paychecks NSA contractors haul in. Privacy, like fatcat military industrial intelligence complex profiteering, is an important issue without a doubt, but it's not at the center of this matter. The scandal is not about privacy, or whisteblowing, or whether Edward Snowden was a bad neighbor, or whether he had enough education to work within the NSA, or whether the media should have published the story, or the decline of community, or any of that. Anybody who makes the conversation about those issues are welcome to; they should find another room to talk in, though, lest they hijack the real conversation.

This is about state-sponsored spying, not personal privacy. The U.S. government has decided the best, most defensible way to fight whatever it deems threatening (now or in the future) is not to create a dossier on every human being on the planet -- that would be totalitarian! Instead they're merely building the infrastructure that enables them to do so both at will and retroactively. All they're doing is merely collecting anonymous "metadata". That's true insofar as it goes (though as a programmer I must protest the abuse of the term "metadata", which typicaly refers to "data about data", whereas phone numbers, emails, Facebook likes and the like are "data about us") but, like most spin, the argument routes around the point with expert precision.

The danger is not so much that government officials are currently investigating you (not that they aren't). It's that if they ever decide they'd like to, they already have your entire history of communication. Normally, an investigation would begin with the gathering of evidence. The cost and effort of beginning to collect evidence is a small and insufficient but important bureaucratic deterrent against starting arbitrary persecutions. However, now an investigation begins with merely bothering to look at the evidence already gathered. Essentially, they started the investigation into you years ago, but it's proceeding on autopilot, waiting for a government spy caring to look.

Imagine, if you will, the NSA claiming the authority to search and catalog the contents of every home on the planet preemptively, but promising never to look at it unless absolutely necessary. The justification is that, in case you're ever accused of a crime in the future, they don't need to assume the burden of getting a warrant or actually searching for what they want to find. They already started it ahead of time, they already have the evidence, and they can just go back and mine that evidence for a crime. Maybe the crime validates the accusation. Maybe along the way they find a totally separate crime. The point is that the investigation is preassembled, a keyword search away from being an actual indictment. If they can create a dossier anytime they want with minimal effort, that's functionally the same as keeping one on you right now.

There's a reason NSA is not in law enforcement: there's nothing limited or legal about the above. It has absolutely, positively zero to do with rights or the law as we understand them. They do what the CIA does to its targets: extralegal gathering of evidence for exploitation at a time of the government's choosing. That is espionage, and there's a reason we abhor it being done to people who are not part of the spy game, let alone people who are supposed to watch over the very government running the spy game.

Yet the most pundits can offer is a shallow, parochial debate about some bourgeois, neutered conception of privacy. For them, this is only about the exact nature of our freedom to share with sufficient insularity pictures of cats, what we had for lunch, and silly memes. Now we need to all sit around indian style and figure out the kind of Stasi with which we'd be most comfortable, what kinds of checks and balances, safeguards and oversight would allow us a good night's monitored sleep.

Don't be fooled. The onus is not on us to properly circumscribe the boundaries of our private lives. The onus is on them to explain the way their leviathan, totalitarian institutions spill out of the confines they agreed to obey, those charters that give them their existence in the first place, the enumerated powers they claim separate them from totalitarian regimes or organized crime syndicates. The lesson here that no pundit will mention is that the state is inherently a scam. This domestic spying on us is but one facet of the overall institutional hegemony that dominates us and teaches us helplessness.

It's understable to feel powerless when massive bureuacracies continually body check your sense of self. If you'd rather ignore the reality of what our world is becoming, fine. But you don't have to accept the turnkey distractions of the punditry. Who knows, one day you may decide that this time they went too far, and if that happens, you'll need a sense of judgment and agency that hasn't completely atrophied.

Written on Thursday, June 13, 2013 | Tags: espionage, spying, surveillance, nsa, punditry