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You’re Caught in the Net! – A review of Julia Angwin’s “Dragnet Nation”

A few decades ago if somebody told you “you’re being watched!” You might have dismissed them as paranoid, mildly unhinged, or perhaps you would have entertained the possibility that you had somehow become enmeshed in a web of international intrigue (cue the surf guitar!).

It’s a rather sad commentary that today when somebody says “you’re being watched” the standard reply is some variation of “yes, I know.” Though, the suit wearing g-men and their army of acolytes have stopped trailing suspects and instead have found it more efficient (and that it requires less walking) to simply tap into the rich data streams that people are merrily creating. Granted “suspects” has become largely interchangeable with “everybody” – and the snooping governmental agent has found a new partner in the hoodie wearing tech firm.

You are being watched. But what can you do about it?

That is precisely the question that the author and investigative journalist Julia Angwin tries to answer in her new book Dragnet Nation, which chronicles (amongst other things) Angwin’s attempts and frustrations with trying to defend her privacy and fight surveillance. The title of the book simply but eloquently captures the scope of the problem that Angwin is addressing – instead of foregrounding the more invasive and targeted term “surveillance” Angwin captures the sense in which all people find their information gathered up in the corporate and government dragnet (Dragnet World would also have worked as the title [maybe that’s the sequel?]). As Angwin makes clear: “Round up the usual suspects” has become “round up everybody.”

Angwin recognizes from the outset that while surveillance is an issue that, increasingly, impacts everybody, the history of surveillance is one that demonstrates that some groups and communities feel its repressive weight more aggressively than others. Furthermore “the history of surveillance” is a discomforting reminder that the issue of surveillance did not suddenly become an issue with Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA – surveillance had been a problem long before white middle-class tech users suddenly felt targeted. Thus, Angwin begins her book with a quick history of governmental spying. Angwin’s short history touches upon past targeting of radicals and activists by government agencies (programs like COINTELPRO and the targeting of Martin Luther King Jr.); however, she quickly transitions to discussing the modern era.

2001 is an important year in Angwin’s history of surveillance, as the security apparatus hastily approved in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001 – emerges as the point at which the surveillance beast was unchained. And since then it has not been told to “heel” or for that matter to “heal” – rather it has grown in size and power. Angwin notes the ways in which the newly empowered surveillance programs have simultaneously targeted everybody while Muslim-Americans have felt the hars gaze of even more invasive and omnipresent surveillance. Yet ultimately Angwin is quite skeptical of the claims that such governmental steps are needed, as she notes that it’s not clear that computer enhanced surveillance efforts are more effective than older methods of intelligence gathering, or are particularly effective in stopping attacks at all.

The history of surveillance and comments upon the current “State of Surveillance” (one of the chapter titles) are replete with mentions of the forces of past repressive regimes (such as the Stasi in East Germany), with comments about how the tools at the NSA’s, and corporation’s, disposal would have been the fruition of wild fantasies for those past iconic repressive regimes. Yet, when Angwin looks out at the state of the watched and the watchers she finds:

“The reality is that corporate and government dragnets are inextricably linked; neither can exist without the other.” (34)

In other words – at risk of being overly simplistic – to fight one dragnet one must fight the other. Thus, after grounding her argument in recent history, Angwin sets about on a mission of sorts to see what she can do to better protect her privacy. Recognizing the omnipresence of surveillance and tracking in society, Angwin notes that there is only so much that she can do without “getting off the grid” but it is rather clear that Angwin rather likes being on the grid, even if she recognizes it has some downsides. Instead, Angwin’s aim is what one might expect from many people who live in technological societies, but want their lives to feel a little bit less like a prologue to 1984. The goals and values with which Angwin approaches her mission in some ways prefigure the steps she is willing to take, but her goals (or “threat model”) consists of:

“Don’t break the law…Continue to live in the modern world…Use conventional tools…Aim for zero data retention…Use the mud-puddle test…Engage in data pollution…Protect my traffic…Use real-time communications…Spread data around…Pay for performance…Transparency rules…Privacy as protest…Don’t succumb to fear.” (71-77)

It is a wide-ranging list of goals, one which blends legal concerns with a sense that the work itself is resistance along with technical goals and a final commitment to not becoming inured. The journey itself is an informative one, and the sense of “I knew it was bad, but didn’t realize it was this bad” that emerges is palpable. As Angwin digs into the world of tracking (most of which is done by for-profit companies [of varying degrees of creepiness]) she uncovers the galling number of trackers at work on any site and at moments is discomforted by how much information on her some trackers have gathered and how some other trackers seem quite misinformed. Yet what is abundantly clear is that enough of those seemingly innocuous bits of data can be combined into a very noxious picture and the results can be equally nausea inducing.

To fight the trackers, the watchers, and those staring at the screens, Angwin searches for alternatives – in particular alternatives to the big trackers like Google and Facebook. She finds herself talking to executives (and workers) at companies striving to build tools that respect users’ privacy, she speaks to government whistle blowers who sounded the warning about surveillance (pre-Snowden), and she meets with individuals whose commitment to anonymity has resulted in their living in a way that makes fighting surveillance a constant part of their routine. Just as Angwin’s goals range across a variety of areas, so too do her solutions: she works to build iron-clad passwords, tries out encryption programs, attempts (with disappointing results) to “buy out” of companies that track her, constructs a false identity (when a site asks for your name, you don’t have to give them your real one), and encourages those around her to take their privacy seriously. Without succumbing to fear, Angwin nevertheless clearly realizes that there is no panacea to the surveillance bug, but still recognizes that there are steps that people can take (some of which are pretty simple) to protect their privacy.

It is this blend of “simple steps” anybody can take along with a sort of recurring frustration that makes Dragnet Nation truly compelling. Without wanting to make any unfair assumptions about Julia Angwin – here is an experienced journalist, writing about issues of privacy and surveillance, who seems to clearly have the time and resources to really work on these issues and even she is having a lot of trouble getting out of the dragnet. Due to her connections as a journalist (and ostensibly her credit as somebody writing a book on surveillance) Angwin has access to a range of experts and executives that most people would not. At moments the degree of the challenge of escaping the dragnet is particularly indicative of the level of the problem – after all, Angwin is able to call upon skilled associates for assistance configuring encryption software, but not everybody has such associates. Likewise Angwin is able to enlist the assistance of others in trying to fight off “tracking” companies, but not everybody has the good fortune to have a research assistant. Angwin is able to go to great – if reasonable – lengths to escape from Sauron’s gaze, and yet in doing so she is able to spend a fair amount of two resources that are not available to all people: money and more importantly time. What Angwin routinely comes up against is the tradeoff between the convenience that comes with allowing herself to be spied upon and the inconveniences that arise when she resists the watcher’s gaze. Furthermore, Angwin depressingly encounters a mix of push-back and apathy from friends (and herself) as she gets more enmeshed in fighting off the mesh – as demonstrated by a “privacy” party she attempts to hold falling apart when most of the invitees can’t be bothered to decrypt the invitation.

Dragnet Nation is an interesting, entertaining, informative, and lively read. It is an excellent selection for those who want an explanation of the current state of surveillance (and a warning of where that world may go next) without reading a “get off the grid” manifesto. While Angwin refuses to play-down the threats of surveillance and also refuses to play-up the supposed “benefits” the book still leaves readers with a number of useful takeaways: from suggestions of certain plug-ins to consider installing to a reminder of how they can build much stronger passwords. Angwin’s honesty is refreshing, particularly as she writes with a sense that she “kept fighting the last war” (178) which makes it clear just how difficult it is to find a fix for the fix in which surveillance traps people.

Throughout Dragnet Nation a point that Angwin continually circles back to is the fact that the people, groups and companies working to actively combat surveillance are being overwhelmed and outspent. While Angwin emphasizes the importance of paying for the anti-surveillance tools she likes (“pay for performance”) she still finds that these companies tend to be small and unable to rise to a similar scale as their invasive opponents. In this regard Angwin is able to nimbly, if not deeply, discuss the ways in which constant surveillance has become a major force in the market, but this is a point with which Angwin engages in a less consistent way than other issues. Indeed, the main critique that could be aimed at Dragnet Nation, its one truly nagging flaw is that for all of its discussion of politics and for all of its discussion of the economics of surveillance, the book ultimately lacks a critique borne of political economy. Thus to fully understand the larger contextual meaning of Dragnet Nation one benefits from reading it alongside a book like Robert McChesney’s Digital Disconnect as the argument made by McChesney is a sustained critique of the way capitalism has produced the warped Internet and by extension the surveillance functionality which Angwin is discussing.

At a few points in Dragnet Nation the lack of a stronger critique grounded in political economy emerges with somewhat unintentionally amusing results. Case in point, in a chapter titled “Leaving Google” Angwin faces the frustration of the lack of options for e-mail providers outside of the big companies and eventually finds herself considering Riseup – an e-mail service with anarchist roots that asks its users to agree to a “social contract” which includes that users should not use Riseup to advocate “support for capitalism, domination, or hierarchy” (123). Angwin finds herself caught off guard by this anti-capitalist sentiment, though not too seriously thrown off; however, this unfortunately misses an opportunity to contemplate the ways in which “support for capitalism, domination, [and] hierarchy” are arguably the central problems with the very e-mail services she is moving to Riseup in order to escape. A similarly amusing clash occurs in the following chapter as Angwin considers ways in which to better mask her online spending. Musing on why she remains somewhat skeptical of bitcoins she notes “I didn’t want to be suspected of being an anarchist” (138) and then two sentences later (really) recognizes that her concerns about spending are making her think of “the anthropologist David Graeber’s beautiful mediation on the meaning and moral implications of debt” (138). David Graeber being, of course, a well-known anarchist anthropologist. The point being that perhaps a slightly more radical political/economic critique on Angwin’s part would help make clearer some of the issues with which she is dealing. At the very least it would allow for an argument that can more openly name that one of the forces driving surveillance is capitalism.

On a similar level Dragnet Nation is also somewhat stymied by the stance Angwin takes towards technology: a stance which is at times skeptical but for the most part is unabashedly pro-technology. As a journalist, Angwin makes it clear the ways in which technology textures her professional life and the ways in which technology textures her personal life as well (though she does quit Facebook) – thus she is willing to run the obstacle course to set-up a “burner” phone, but the option to do without a smart phone (or do without a cell phone) is not really an option for her. This is understandable and ultimately is one of the reasons why Dragnet Nation is such a compelling read, because Angwin (like most of the book’s audience) are likely only willing to go so far when it comes to protecting their privacy. Yet, as Angwin tries one device after another, one app after another, and speaks to one company after another, a sense may emerge as to whether or not a lot of the issues really do have to do with the devices themselves. After all, if your smart phone has become history’s most efficient secret informant than maybe the solution is to not have a smart phone – as Angwin makes clear, your smart phone is more efficient than a battalion of Stasi officers. Though to reach such a conclusion one must be willing to argue that “not have a smart phone” is actually a reasonable answer, and Angwin seems hesitant to make such an argument. In a conversation with the whistle blower Thomas Drake about issues of surveillance, Drake comments:

“That’s how you defeat high-tech…with low-tech.” (191)

and yet the next sentence (after a section break) is the line:

“I still wanted a technological solution.” (191)

It is an understandable desire, and throughout the book it is clear that this is what Angwin “wanted;” however, the book also makes it clear that most “technological solutions” are answers to the “last war” to the “last question” not the current one. Alas, expecting a technological or a capitalist solution to the issues of surveillance may not be to find a real solution but just alternatives to buy that will insulate a certain set of individuals whilst the majority find their information caught in the dragnet. Which is to restate that while Dragnet Nation is an informative read it works best when pared with works that advance a critique rooted in political-economy (I’d recommend José Van Dijck’s The Culture of Connectivity or Robert McChesney’s Digital Disconnect) and a critique of technology (I’d recommend Langdon Winner’s The Whale and the Reactor or Doug Hill’s Not So Fast).

Dragnet Nation is a highly readable and very engaging text, which demonstrates the extent of the surveillance issue while providing readers with some real steps that they can take. Though, it may be that the greatest strength of Angwin’s book is as a gateway argument that will get readers interested in a broader critique. Yet, at the very least, Dragnet Nation is a serious discussion of a pressing issue, and it functions as a much better conversation starter than giving somebody a tinfoil hat.

[Note to the editor/publisher of Dragnet Nation – while it is hard to know exactly when Dragnet Nation was typeset and sent to the printer, please note for future printings and the paperback edition that the name of the whistle blower who gave documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to Wikileaks is Chelsea Manning]

The Book Reviewed

Dragnet Nation

by Julia Angwin

Time Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2014.

Other Book Reviews

Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier

Not So Fast by Doug Hill

Digital Disconnect by Robert McChesney

The Riot Grrrl Collection

Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff

To Save Everything Click Here by Evgeny Morozov


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

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