Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
As they travel through the ether digital communications can be easily snapped up, copied, saved, analyzed, and stored without you ever knowing it. Your phone calls, text messages, e-mails, tweets, etc…are all just tasty bait tempting the leviathan. Some may have felt safe in the belief that anybody whose communications are being scooped up must have done something wrong, but…
As Glenn Greenwald reports at The Guardian in a piece aptly titled “Revealed: NSA collecting phone records of millions of Americans daily,” the US government issued an order that:
“requires Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.”
The key word there is “all,” a term that encompasses – well – all of the communications going through Verizon. Are you a Verizon user? Congratulations! You too can now tell your friends that the government is tracking your calls. Though Greenwald also noted:
“While the order itself does not include either the contents of messages or the personal information of the subscriber of any particular cell number, its collection would allow the NSA to build easily a comprehensive picture of who any individual contacted, how and when, and possibly from where, retrospectively.”
Yet, before you allow yourself to think, “oh, it’s not the contents, no big deal,” consider that this metadata (as it is classified) has important implications:
“Those records enable the government to know the identity of every person with whom an individual communicates electronically, how long they spoke, and their location at the time of the communication.
Such metadata is what the US government has long attempted to obtain in order to discover an individual’s network of associations and communication patterns.“
This story is very important, and Greenwald’s article (like most of his writing) is well worth reading. You should be outraged; however, you should not be surprised. What the NSA is doing is not altogether different from what Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Apple, and so forth are doing (and this likely isn’t just Verizon giving information to the NSA). This is the age of “Big Data” where every digital action we take is tracked, logged, and fed into a massive system to see what connections spin out the other side. While the NSA may have motives other than targeting advertisements at us, the fact remains, that our digital communications have been observed for quite a while.
We live in panoptic times, where we are constantly watched by security cameras (and soon by Google Glass), and our locations are tracked by our smartphones. We also live in an age where we know that companies are competing to harvest the most data about our interests, connections, and activities. Heck, we live in an age when prominent tech executives can even publicly recognize the authoritarian potential lurking in modern technology (and where others can pine for their own techological nation state). In our national security crazed era it is naïve to expect the government to behave with restraint when there are such lush informational pickings waiting to be picked up and analyzed.
We are living in the age of the triumph of the “Megamachine” that Lewis Mumford warned against decades ago. In Mumford’s parlance a “megamachine” is less a single all-powerful device than the hierarchical societal organization that commands obedience before an omnipotent (and authoritarian) technical will (it is a concept with some similarities to Jacques Ellul’s “Technique”), a system that sees no humanity but only cogs within its own machinations. Mumford (in The Pentagon of Power, The Myth of the Machine, vol. 2) noted that:
“The computer turns out to be the Eye of the reinstated Sun God, that is, the Eye of the Megamachine, serving as its ‘Private Eye’ or Detective, as well as the omnipresent Executive Eye, he who exacts absolute conformity to his commands, because no secret can be hidden from him, and no disobedience can go unpunished.” (274)
And what happens under the observance of this eye?
“In the end, no action, no conversation, and possibly in time no dream or thought would escape the wakeful and relentless eye of this deity: every manifestation of life would be processed into the computer and brought under its all-pervading system of control. This would mean, not just the invasion of privacy, but the total destruction of autonomy: indeed the dissolution of the human soul.” (274/275)
It is important to keep in mind that the NSA – though the government is supposedly “of, by, and for the people” – serves the levers of power, Mumford’s megamachine, not the populace. Granted, organizations like Verizon and the rest of the telecoms are every bit as invested in the maintenance and improvement of the megamachine as the NSA. After all, before the NSA can demand that data, Verizon must build the systems that would create that type of data in the first place. And thus it should come as little surprise that (as this case makes all too clear):
“the agents of the megamachine act as if their only responsibility were to the power system itself. The interests and demands of the populations subjected to the megamachine are not only unheeded but deliberately flouted.” (271)
This NSA scandal that Greenwald has exposed is many things and there are many appropriate reactions: be outraged, be worried, be cautious, be many things.
But please, don’t pretend to be surprised.
Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine: II. The Pentagon of Power. Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers (1970)