Life Under Surveillance: Snowden, NSA and America

I frequently take the the top voted question from readers and answer it on the blog. With 64 votes, today’s winner was submitted by Imran:

Life under Surveillance: Issues and Options?

Edward Snowden will go down in history as a hero. A quick look at the history of The Pentagon Papers and the story of Daniel Ellsberg reveals easy comparisons. Just like the legacy of presidents, we are bad at evaluating the long term impacts of leaks, revelations, scandals and whistleblowers. With every year that goes by we’ll see a continued shift to his positive recognition. I know many people call Snowden a traitor and in many ways he is. But there is no rule that says you can’t be a hero and a traitor simultaneously. Remember that all of the American founding fathers were traitors. The very idea of whistleblowing is defined by betraying the system in power, yet it is a primary way major corruption is revealed. As painful and risky as it is, if it succeeds in generating enough attention it is a rare forcing function for change. If Snowden came back to America I’d likely support the filing of charges against him but also hold him up as hero: they’re not mutually exclusive.

Regarding life under surveillance, personal technology made it unavoidable as surveillance is the business model of the web. The only surprise is we’re living in A Brave New World and not 1984. We are willing and mostly happy participants. That’s the funny thing about most dystopian movies: they underestimate what we’re willing to accept in the name of convenience. Every week we hear a new story of people being fired over Facebook posts or tweets, or stories of credit card numbers and passwords being hacked, and mostly we just shrug. On a personal level we don’t see the stakes as being very high, and we don’t have an understanding of how surveillance undermines any notion of democracy or republic based government. We don’t think through how it impacts journalists, and how central journalists are to protecting our freedoms. And it’s hard to grasp the reality that when certain things are taken away they won’t ever return.

On the positive side, republics like the United States are sleeping giants of consciousness. Americans are a sluggish bunch when it comes to caring about what’s going on in the world or even the daily business of how our governments run. But every now and then an issue that has been slowly weighing on the collective consciousness slides to the forefront, and we have unexpected and dramatic change. 17 states now support gay-marriage, a staggering number given how long this issue has lingered and been debated in America. When American values truly shift, the politicians feel it under their feet and change their stance accordingly. The question is what exactly has to happen for that ground to shift for Americans regarding surveillance, whether it’s privacy from corporations or true freedom of information from the government?

The rub with surveillance is, unlike most social issues, there are huge corporate forces benefiting from surveillance in one form or another. Political issues like legalizing marijuana, or reducing discrimination, are complex enough without the direct line to profits lurking in the center of protecting information about citizens. That’s what I find terrifying: when the interests of government and corporations align against citizens.

 Are American people okey-dokey with NSA’s data dragnet?

The short answer is yes. Awareness of NSA’s behavior has not led to the formation of a political movement. A major contribution to the acceptance of the NSA’s actions is the feeling of fatalism many Americans have about government. They’re so detached from how it works they’ve long given up on it representing them or responding to their concerns. Snowden’s disclosures were a wake up call, but it was too abstract. It revealed generalities of abuse, not specific and emotional stories of how a family or a neighbor had data about them used against them. Most of us have a hard time connecting the dots to what our lives will be like if we don’t fight for these policies to change. There will need to be other, louder, more personally resonant, wake up calls before enough Americans rally around demanding stronger safeguards for the government’s access to data about its citizens.

[Update: Ellsberg commentary on Snowden]

7 Responses to “Life Under Surveillance: Snowden, NSA and America”

  1. Sean Crawford

    Hi Scott.
    I like your “on a positive note.”

    My concern is when fatalism means infantilism. I’m still annoyed at the time when citizens responded by proposing a no-fly day, as if they were frustrated powerless children in a boarding school, in response to Homeland Security beginning genital “pat downs.”

    The adult thing would have been to press for congress to be given a little oversight and a little power over Homeland Security, so that congress could inject some calm common sense into the matter… Of course groups of excited government workers with power can make mistakes, just as a small group of people can get excited and buy a store front in an expensive place where any local with common sense can predict the store will fail.

    Folks missed the wake-up call that “pat down” day, and missed another chance for a “common sense audit” and overhaul of Homeland S. when the head of Homeland publicly said that some of the 9/11 guys had crossed over from Canada.

    I’ve just reread my essay-blog from October 2013, Reflections on Surveillance, where I tried to sneak up on the topic cheerfully, with fondness for government workers. I can see now how my readers would feel boggled, defeated, because there is just so much to say, and so much wrong-doing. At least I was able to suppress denial by documenting that the innocent do indeed have something to fear from surveillance.

    Perhaps the most hopeful and energizing point of attack is encouraging and supporting individual congressmen to stop specific group-think and mission-creep. Nip it in the bud! Let’s remember that, despite the scenario of student cartoons, congressmen are not “capitalist running pig dogs.” Many are trying to do the right thing, many are independently wealthy and beholden to no one.

  2. Mike

    Comment from a party this week: “Where’s the line between analytics and espionage?” It got a laugh, but no serious answers.

    1. Scott

      I don’t think anyone ever guessed 50 years ago there would be so much data about individual people’s behavior. Our language, notions and laws have a lot of catching up to do.

    2. Odai

      If you’re talking about analytics in the sense of Google Analytics, I think the line is whether the data can be tied to a specific individual. Keeping generalized data about a website’s visitors (where did they come from, what pages do they like, how long do they stay) can be used to improve the website for both user and owner, so it’s actually a good thing.

      The danger comes when that data could be used to blackmail and individual. So it’s acceptable to track which pages are popular on your adult website, but unacceptable to tie page views to specific IP addresses.

      A gray area comes from tracking specific users over time, like Google does. This long-term personal info can be very valuable, but the potential for abuse is strong. To me, the compromise is hashing identifying info (hashing is like encryption, except that hashed data can’t be un-hashed). This allows you to track a particular user’s behavior, but (if done right) wouldn’t allow anyone viewing the database to identify the real person.

      1. Scott

        There are safeguards that can be put in place, as you suggest, but the damage that can be done when those safeguards fail is terrifying and possibly irreversible. Identity theft is an interesting example – it doesn’t take very much work to collect enough data about a person to impact their lives deeply and personally.

  3. Human

    I find it deeply disturbing; the frequency with which I see Americans defend and support tyrannical and anti-democratic social structures and behaviors on all levels, while at the same time paying lip service the virtues of “freedom” and democracy, often alongside arrogant and ignorant claims of American exceptionalism. War is peace, freedom is slavery… The gap between belief and reality creates “free enterprise” opportunities; exploited by the conscienceless and adamantly praised by a brainwashed populace.

    1. Scott

      Historically speaking do you think America is any better or worse in this regard than most nations throughout history? The blinders of nationalism are well worn.


Leave a Reply

* Required