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If the NSA is the Fever, is the Internet the Disease?

Confirmation came on July 31, 2013, of what many had feared, but which few had possessed the hard factual evidence to establish as more than a flight of paranoia. The proof came courtesy of more information that had been supplied by Edward Snowden to Glenn Greenwald (at the Guardian), and this revelation made the earlier articles about NSA actions look positively quaint. In short, by revealing the X-Keyscore program, users of the Internet now know that everything they do online is watched (or can be watched), as Greenwald wrote:

“Beyond emails, the XKeyscore system allows analysts to monitor a virtually unlimited array of other internet activities, including those within social media.”

Granted, most people are aware to at least some extent that everything they do on the Internet is monitored. Targeted advertisements appearing on the webpages you visit are a result of your web visits being monitored, Google can suggest sponsored links next to your Gmail by reading all of your e-mail, and Facebook knows whether to advertise wedding rings or singles’ sites by monitoring your information. And yet, even though we are accustomed (even if we are unaware of being accustomed) to having our actions monitored online there is something nefarious about knowing the government is doing it.

After all, when it comes to the Internet, there is a general acceptance that much of our information is being harnessed for other purposes, but this tends to be viewed as part of a tradeoff in which we are encouraged to think of ourselves as the side getting the better deal. Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, iTunes, etc…all of these sites have a cost that we do not see the dollar sign in front of, we pay to use them by handing over our data and information which these companies are then able to monetize. That we can understand, most people don’t seem as bothered by spying when it’s about advertising, but when it’s about watching for the sake of watching people (some people) grow wary. Furthermore, corporations that can’t quite be bothered to pay their taxes can hardly be expected to abide by the 4th amendment. When you use Google you give Google your information, this is obvious, we can at least think that most people would avoid using a search engine blatantly called “Now Search All!”

Greenwald’s latest article “XKeyscore: NSA tool collects ‘nearly everything a user does on the internet’” is perhaps the most important article he has written on the NSA thus far (and that’s saying something) and it should be required reading; even for those who claim that they are not concerned about the government knowing what they’re doing. However, without for a moment calling into question the information madness laid out in Greenwald’s article, I would like to ask another question – one that seems to not be getting as much attention as one would think it might. Namely: to what extent is this about the NSA, and to what extent is this really about the Internet?

Obviously, two points need to be made immediately. Firstly, the NSA has been engaging in worrisome actions for much longer than we’ve been using the Internet on an hourly basis. In 1975, Senator Frank Church warned of the tyrannical powers vested in the NSA that could easily be turned against the American people – and his warning came decades before smart phones. The second point that should be acknowledged is that the Internet can be a site of resistance, and can be used in ways that thwart authoritarian power structures instead of strengthening them. I do not for a moment doubt that there are groups who use the Internet to fight for truth (as Wikileaks did with Bradley Manning’s information, and as the Guardian is doing now with Edward Snowden’s information) and that the Internet can be a powerful tool in organizing protests and in spreading the word about injustices.

I acknowledge both of those caveats without reservation, yet to the first point I posit that the technologies that empower the NSA as never before came of age with the Internet, and to the second point I would note that while the Internet can be used for good purposes this is not necessarily the way it is primarily used by most people, and furthermore even using it for “just” uses can leave behind the footprints that XKeyscore can watch. The question is to what extent has the Internet, and our constant use of it, changed the very technological structure of our society and the way in which we interact with it? Writing years before the age of the Internet, Herbert Marcuse foresaw some of this danger (in One Dimensional Man [italics in original]):

“to the degree to which the established technical apparatus engulfs the public and private existence in all spheres of society—that is, becomes the medium of control and cohesion in a political universe which incorporates the laboring classes—to that degree would the qualitative change involve a change in the technological structure itself.” (Marcuse, 25)

As a system that “engulfs” seemingly all of our “public and private existence in all spheres of society” the Internet emerges as the new technological structure, and insofar as it is the new structure it is no surprise that it is manipulated by the forces of control in our society be they corporate groups or governmental ones. While advocates of the “open Internet” and “Internet Freedom” may point out – not incorrectly – that this technological structure could be a free and democratic space, one that better protects anonymity it is clear that the Internet that XKeyscore and the NSA takes advantage of is not the Internet of our ideals but the Internet on which we e-mail messages to one another dreaming of what the ideal Internet could look like. If in its early days the Internet was a less corporatized and secret-policed field, it is not so today. This steady warping of the Internet into its current – easily exploitable – format is the topic of Robert W. McChesney’s (excellent) book Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy (reviewed here), in which McChesney notes that, today:

“The domination of the Internet by a handful of monopolists, as well as the emerging cloud structure of the Internet, is perfect for the government. It need deal with only a handful of giants to effectively control the Internet.” (McChesney, 164)

And by the same token many of those giants are already effectively controlling the Internet, all that the government is really asking them to do is to share.  The value that NSA extracts from the Internet, using XKeyscore, is entirely the result of our usage of the Internet. It may seem like a laughably obvious point to make but in order for XKeyscore to track your online usage, you must be online using the Internet in the first place (and though resources like TOR may help provide you with more anonymity they are hardly used by everybody). The problem, of course, emerges as a result of the way in which the Internet is the new technological structure in which we are enmeshed – we can scarcely imagine how we would communicate with friends, read the news, or order a pizza without the Internet, and thus we make all of these interactions fodder fo XKeyscore for reasons that even those using XKeyscore don’t need to make particularly sensible.

The concerns about national security applications of these programs should not be completely dismissed, but it should be remembered that invoking national security is generally governmental short hand for “we don’t want to have to answer that because we do not have a good answer.” Indeed, so much information flows through XKeyscore as to make attempts to isolate genuine “threats” almost laughable. Many have invoked the image of the needle in the haystack, claiming the NSA is also collecting the haystack, but what they fail to mention is that the NSA collects all of the haystacks and then looks out upon them and defends its hay fever by saying “surely there’s a needle in at least one of them, whether or not we can find it…well…national security.”

Programs like XKeyscore function by using our Internet usage against us, and in a society where people know that they are being watched it is worth wondering to what extent freedom can genuinely be enjoyed or exercised. In describing the importance of privacy, Marcuse warned that privacy is essential as it is:

“isolation in which the individual, thrown back on himself alone, can think and question and find. This sort of privacy—the sole condition that, on the basis of satisfied vital needs, can give meaning and independence of thought—has long since become the most expensive commodity, available only to the very rich (who don’t use it).” (Marcuse, 249)

Such isolation and privacy are impossible when a person is watched, but the question – to return to it – is whether or not this kind of privacy and isolation are actually antithetical to the Internet. The Internet has opened spaces where people can find new ideas that may challenge their long held notions (as reading Greenwald’s articles may do) but in pursuing these actions on the Internet all of these interactions become actions that can be easily called up by XKeyscore. That the NSA’s surveillance tactics, and our political leadership’s feckless disregard for public concerns (and the public’s rights), have passed beyond the point of being worrisome is obvious. It is grotesque. Yet, the NSA has only gained its information foothold through our usage of the Internet. A system that we have no excuse for not recognizing as a tool that is as useful for watching us as it is useful in our daily lives.

So to restate the question: if the NSA is the fever, is the real illness the Internet? After all, without the illness…the fever would not be at nearly as high a temperature.

Also on this topic:

The Panoptic Con

Dystopia and Distraction

Paranoia is Not a Tactic

“More than machinery, we need humanity”

The Triumph of Technique

Works Cited:

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Routledge, 1991

McChesney, Robert. Digital Disconnect. The New Press, 2013

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

5 comments on “If the NSA is the Fever, is the Internet the Disease?

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This entry was posted on August 1, 2013 by in Civil Liberties, Ethics, Government, Philosophy, Privacy, Society, Surveillance, Technology, The Internet, US Politics and tagged , , .

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