By Mark McConaghy
Hundreds of news pundits and editorial columnists declared outrage last week over the revelation that the US government’s National Security Agency has direct access to the servers of the world’s largest internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Skype, Apple, and Microsoft. The government can monitor and track all online communication, even if it is made in email accounts or messenger services that were once considered “private” and secure. While these companies have gone to great lengths to ensure us of the “privacy” of our personal data, which can include all kinds of sensitive materials from credit card numbers to bank account info to old-fashioned love letters, after this week’s revelations the myth of that privacy has been thoroughly smashed.
Ironically, Microsoft’s current add-campaign tells us that “Your privacy is our priority.”
The internet titans implicated in this scandal have denied all knowledge of being apart of it. It makes sense that they would. So much of their business models revolve around ensuring our information is completely secure. And yet, according to the top secret NSA documents reported on by The Guardian, the companies have been participating in this project for years. Microsoft was the first company to join in 2007. It was followed by Yahoo in 2008, Google and Facebook in 2009, Youtube in 2010, and Skype and AOL in 2011. Fittingly enough, Apple joined the party last year.
Only one of two scenarios is possible here. Either these companies have been lying to their customers for years, providing the government with “back door” access to our information while publicly assuring us they were not. Or the government was tapping into their servers without their knowledge, which seems relatively impossible to believe. In the interstices between these two possibilities, someone somewhere is lying.
The question of the internet companies and their complicity, while important, is secondary to the blunt-force meaning of what The Guardian’s report reveals. The Guardian explains it very clearly:
“The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organization, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.”
In a more quaint time in history the government would have had to obtain a court order from a federal judge, proving probable cause, in order to barge into the personal communications of private citizens. That is no longer the case. The American Prism programs allow for secret surveillance without the slightest check on government power, with federal judges no longer being able to provide at least a provisional barrier to the wanton abuse of surveillance force that they once did.
This has come to light by virtue of the courage of an individual whistle-blower brave enough to tell us what is actually going on in the American government. No doubt, Edward Snowden will be attacked by American authorities who will seek to put him in prison for the rest of his life. He deserves to be celebrated, not defamed, for informing the people of the secret ways in which their government spies on their every move (using their own tax dollars to do it to boot!). Like Julian Assange and Bradley Manning before him, Snowden has helped us see into the mechanisms of power. Such acts are invaluable to the practice of democracy, for it is only on the basis of open information that governments can be held accountable for how they use the monopoly of force they posses.
And yet is there not some odd sense of deja-vu about this story? After the shock of the sensational headline fades- American government violates the constitution by spying on their own people!- are we not faced with an eery feeling that, really, we kind of knew this already?
Generations of espionage films and books across the cultural landscape have already prepared us for a world in which there is no privacy from government intrusion. Indeed, after watching films as powerful in their depiction of government surveillance as The Bourne Trilogy or Zero Dark Thirty, can we really say we didn’t know that governments had this kind of penetrating power at their disposal?
In some weird way, this feels less like some shockingly novel scandal and more like a cinematic-vision come true, a prophecy of some future time of ultimate government power made manifest in the here and now.
It is a scary thought- we have a government that knows everything about us and we know absolutely nothing about it. It has the power to instantly penetrate into our email accounts, contact books, and calendars- knowing our every communication and every movement- without any need to provide just cause for such an intrusion. In a system in which the government sees all- and the people see relatively nothing in return- the potential for abuse is enormous. Authoritarian states in Russia and China commit this kind of online espionage all the time; we once had higher standards for democratic polities in the rest of Asia, Europe, and the West.
The defenders of such broad government power will immediately bring up the word “terrorism” in order to justify such programs. For doesn’t such spying allow us to better track suspected terrorists who would want to set off bombs in public spaces and kill innocent civilians? As I have argued elsewhere, the threat of terrorist violence is real in our world and cannot be taken lightly.
And yet there must be some measure of balance between the need to deter against domestic threat and the need to protect basic civil liberties. Unless we are prepared to accept a society in which there is no privacy in relation to the state- in which in order to protect ourselves from an extremist minority we are willing to forgo all semblance of legally-protected anonymity- we must maintain such balance.
In some ways the American government’s Prism program is the intelligence equivalent of the military-police state we saw flood Boston’s streets during the manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers. Shocked by terrorism, desperately trying to stop it, the state’s impulse was to literally span out everywhere: it wanted to monitor everything, it wanted to have boots on the ground in every street and in every home, deluging the city and our online servers with eyes everywhere, desperately trying to watch for the nefarious elements that hurt us.
And yet in such a situation what guarantees do we have that government abuses of power- whether in indiscriminate arrests or nefarious online spying- will not occur?
Who, after all, is capable of watching the watchmen?
We are quickly descending into a world in which it is no longer capable for ordinary citizens to do so. Even if we want to somehow check what the watchmen are doing, how would we go about doing that? The government acts in secret, without even the judiciary branch knowing what they are doing. It is even less possible for us, the lowly citizens with no official status or connections, to know anything about the state’s activities.
While such a surveillance society may ensure our safety, the individual citizen can do nothing but hope that the broad authoritarian powers of the government are in good hands. We are left to do nothing but wish they are used in an appropriate manner, with our best interests at heart.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is not called democracy. That is called a benevolent dictatorship of force, an enlightened apparatus to monitor our own behavior for our best interests.
And if the people behind that apparatus get it into their heads to abuse their powers, we will wake up and realize that we gave up any ability to challenge them long ago.
Clearly, a more balanced approach is needed.
Personal freedom cannot be sacrificed at the hands of the excessive overreach of government, no matter how benevolent it is. We must strive to combat terrorism without rending the basic freedom that is the cornerstone of justice in our society.
Vague promises to use authoritarian measures in the most humane ways possible are not enough.
We must watch the watchmen. No matter how difficult that task has become in an age where the paranoid dreams of yesterday have transformed into the digital realities of today.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century. An avid cinephile, he also reviews films for the Toronto Review of Books. At the moment, he his integrating his political interests into a variety of aesthetic projects, spanning from poetry to experimental film.