"More than machinery, we need humanity."

The Banality of NSA Reform

“The reforms I’m proposing today should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected, even as our intelligence and law enforcement agencies maintain the tools they need to keep us safe”

With those words, and many others, President Barack Obama announced plans for some alterations to the NSA. The President’s speech came in response to the continuing anger over the NSA’s questionably-legal but unquestionably-unsettling tactics. Whether the response was primarily motivated by the frustration of foreign leaders, the fear of financial losses expressed by prominent tech companies, an NSA unhappy about being doubted, or the concerns of (gasp!) ordinary citizens and civil society is difficult to tell. Yet the overall tone of the President’s speech was meant to convey a simple message: everything is okay now, go back to what you were doing before.

That President Obama can deliver a well-written speech and infuse it with gravitas and a calm demeanor is not a topic worthy of much consideration. Frankly, it was a pretty decent speech, and the recognition given within the speech to the moments when the US government has questionably deployed surveillance tactics in the past gave the speech an aura of self-awareness for how surveillance is often misused. Snowden’s revelations have been like bold, angry graffiti sprayed on the walls of Washington D.C., and the President’s speech was an attempt to definitively paint over those words. Yet the speech was a single coat of badly applied paint through which the graffiti will still show, which is lucky seeing as the reforms being suggested are less about really reforming the NSA than they are about creating a facsimile of change, an attempt to end the debate before any real changes are demanded.

Granted the analysis of the shortcomings of President Obama’s proposed “reforms” were being aired before the President even finished his speech. As a result there is a rather comical aspect to the speech, in an attempt to finish the debate it simply gave the NSA’s critics a chance to say “These are exactly the kind of reforms that are insufficient.” The suggestions for changing the NSA were unimpressive (for more on this see: Greenwald and see: ACLU also see: EFF), yet even as President Obama failed to put forth much in the way of meaningful reform he made a number of startling admissions about technology that are well worth considering. It was tempting to listen to (watch or read) the President’s speech focusing on surveillance, but if one paid attention too narrowly upon the address it is possible that the larger worrisome aspect of the speech can be missed. For, despite all of the talk about the NSA and surveillance, President Obama’s speech was really a harrowing commentary on the state of our technological society.

That the NSA’s actions and capabilities have relied upon sophisticated advances in  technologies is fairly obvious, but not much of the commentary about the revelations has focused heavily upon the role of technology, instead the emphasis has often been upon the agency that has harnessed that technology. Indeed the type of reforms that most people (particularly tech companies) want is something that allows people to have their digital cake and ensure that nobody else is taking slobbering all over it – for it is easier to hope that the government will reform an action that we do not approve of than for people to come to terms with their own complicity. Yet President Obama actually was able to put some of this tension into his remarks, as he noted in the following lines:

“Surveillance technology and our reliance on digital information is evolving much faster than our laws.”

“The power of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do. That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do.”

“given the pace of technological change, we shouldn’t expect this to be the last time America has this debate.”

“There is a reason why BlackBerrys and iPhones are not allowed in the White House Situation Room.”


“The power of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do. That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do.”

Thus one of the elements that emerged in President Obama’s speech was a clear sense that we are living in a world defined by ever more powerful technologies that make the amassing of massive troves of information easier than ever before. Where once governments needed to have huge networks of spies and secret police to gather information, now the government can rely on people’s digital devices, their “BlackBerrys and iPhones” which are so trustworthy that they are “not allowed” in sensitive areas of the White House. In other words, the actions of the NSA are actions that have been mad possible thanks to the proliferation of new technologies, a swift shift that is outpacing the speed of “our laws” and which is happening with such velocity that this will likely not be “the last time” the country “has this debate.”

Ultimately it is not the distinctly unimpressive redresses proposed by President Obama that undermine his promise of reform, but that his speech is interwoven with manifold examples that subtly make clear exactly why his proposed reforms are so meaningless. The numerous comments made by President Obama about contemporary technology makes it clear that what we have witnessed with the NSA is a government agency drunk with the new powers given to them by technology, powers that exist in a murky-legal area precisely because the capability developed quicker than the laws or ethical framework. In acknowledging the role that technology has played in facilitating the NSA actions that have so rankled people, President Obama’s reforms appear all the more superficial, for they are reforms that will do nothing to alter the underlying technological status quo that has given rise to the issue. Leaving in place the technological apparatus is to hope, with tragic lack of foresight, that the threat for grave misuse will not be actualized in the future. Yet, by noting, repeatedly, how new technologies empower intelligence agencies President Obama’s speech seemed to be deliberately muddling the onus of responsibility. Shifting the emphasis off of the government (and tech companies) and onto some notion of “autonomous technology” that has advanced quicker than the law can keep up. The repeated references to technology by President Obama seem an effort to distract attention from the issue, as people these days seem quite fond of their machines; however, it is worth remembering (as Herbert Marcuse put it):

“Technology as such cannot be isolated from the use to which it is put; the technological society is a system of domination which operates already in the concept and construction of techniques.” (Marcuse, xlvi)

Therefore, it is precisely here, with the question of technology and with the question of those behind technology, that more attention must be focused if any real attempt to challenge the NSA’s actions is to be made. For it is not as though advanced technologies simply appeared one day, they were designed by people and the various pieces of technology were designed and disseminated with certain biases and capabilities inherent within them. Biases and capabilities that, for example, have placed a higher emphasis on gathering and storing massive amounts of information as opposed to user privacy; devices that have acted as permanent spies recording every detail of a person’s day (from location to communication) so that this information can be monetized and sold to the highest advertising bidder (and intelligence agency).

The technological systems that we interact with everyday are built upon notions of informational “domination” and even if this begins with an attempt by Google or Apple or Facebook (or etc…) to harness all of our information it is all too easy for this same data stream to be tapped into by groups with less obviously market-driven aims. What we are gradually seeing, and what was – perhaps accidentally – acknowledged by President Obama is that the debate in the halls of power is being driven not by legal or ethical responsibility but by technological capability. Though the philosopher Jacques Ellul is sometimes dismissed of for his unceasing negativity towards technology it is difficult not to recognize disturbing parallels between his forecasts in The Technological Society and the reality of our technological society. As Ellul wrote:

“The state is no longer caught between political reality and moral theories and imperatives. It is caught between political reality and technical means.” (Ellul, 277)

What President Obama’s forced gestures towards reform and simultaneous comments on technology demonstrates is the attempt to restore faith in the system without seriously changing any of the factors that led to that loss of faith in the first place. To “reform” the NSA without dismantling (or making explicitly illegal) the tools that have so empowered its creeping overreach is not to offer reform it is just to try to “re-form” the debate taking place. The invocations of law and attempts to better shore up the legality of the NSA reveal, back to Ellul, that:

“in itself the law has come to represent nothing but a terminology and a travesty on tradition which happens to be useful to the new lords and masters.” (Ellul, 300)

Indeed, what the revelations about the NSA have demonstrated is the distinct downside of our digital technologies, such that:

“Man is gradually losing his illusions about technique and his bedazzlement with it. He is becoming aware that he has not created an instrument of freedom but a new set of chains; this appears with compelling clarity when the state exploits technical instruments. Man, however, is still not willing to believe in the reality of this new situation; he tends to reject, above and beyond bad technical uses and doctrines, the results of this conjunction between state and technique.

But this rejection is the result of an oversimplification. It is technique itself which has changed. Either that, or it has followed its own law, a law man was ignorant of at the beginning of this glorious era. In any case, man sees that technique has changed, but he is unwilling to examine it too closely for fear of losing his last hopes.” (Ellul, 301)

Ellul’s words capture the fix in which we find ourselves at this moment as we marvel at the ways in which new technologies seem to enhance our lives even as we witness the ways in which these devices can be used as instruments of control. Public uneasiness forced President Obama, and his administration, to pledge some measure of “reform” but insofar as this is the reform of an agency and not an alteration of the techniques that empowered the agency there has been no reform at all. More likely the reforms are meant to lull people back into a state of technological complacency lest they begin to more seriously question the way in which their technological reality is constructed (which would likely be bad for Google’s bottom line).

To every question we are promised a technological answer, such that all of our problems from climate change to economic inequality we are assured will be solved by technological means. We are not living in post-ideological times, it is simply that we do not see is that technology has become the dominant  ideology of our day.  In the unstable world of today many people have invested many of their “last hopes” in technology. The political pledges to reform the NSA are just an attempt to shore up these “hopes.”

Yet, before it is too late, we must ask ourselves if technological hope is “change we can believe in” or if it simply changing the background image on our devices from a surveillance camera to an American flag whilst the device keeps tracking us.

[Full text of President Obama’s speech on NSA Surveillance Reforms can be read here]

Works Cited

Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Vintage, 1964.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Routledge Classics, 2002.

Related Content

The Triumph of Technique – the Logic of the NSA

Twas the Night Before Christmas (and the NSA was watching)

The Panoptic Con

Is Privacy Really a Priority?

“More than Machinery, We Need Humanity”

Luddism for these Ludicrous Times


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

3 comments on “The Banality of NSA Reform

  1. Pingback: The Day We Fight Back (should be every single day) | LibrarianShipwreck

  2. Pingback: The Less Things Change… | LibrarianShipwreck

  3. Pingback: Laws Expire, Surveillance Remains | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on January 19, 2014 by in Civil Liberties, Ethics, Government, Privacy, Surveillance, Technology, The Internet, US Politics and tagged , , , .

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