Homeland surveillance

Homeland Surveillance by Light Brigading Creative Commons via Flickr


It reads like the grand, slightly preposterous plot of an espionage thriller. Perhaps one of those ‘grand tapestry’ style novels with lots of different characters and sub-plots, carefully unfolding towards an inevitable narrative climax. Like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the Edward Snowden story was hard to put down from the first moment and continues to delight because no resolution has been reached yet.

Perhaps its unfolding could have been better planned if it had been a novel. Some initial setting of a background scene or two would have been helpful in establishing some early suspense. For example, the story speculating about the nuclear submarine USS Jimmy Carter’s role in tapping undersea data cables for the NSA would have been an excellent ‘prologue’ for the spy novel.1 The Guardian’s revelations — quickly followed by the voluntary unmasking of the whistleblower Edward Snowden himself — feel instead like an intermediate narrative end point, a fake ending at the beginning of the story.

Of course, the real narrative only emerges gradually: Snowden only communicates with journalists via encrypted email. Snowden leaves Hawaii a few days before the story breaks and finds refuge in a Hong Kong hotel room where he accesses his laptop hidden under a blanket so that no hidden cameras can pick up his passwords.

The American government, seemingly caught completely off guard, always a step or two behind and somewhat ham-handed throughout the whole affair, begins its public posturing by issuing an international arrest warrant for Snowden, hoping the Chinese government will just turn him over. Apparently a master tactician, Snowden then reveals that the US’s global data surveillance program may also have targeted Chinese cellular phone networks — perhaps just enough of a red flag to persuade the Chinese regime that the Americans’ demands for his extradition shouldn’t be heeded. For two days, Snowden then disappears in a fog of speculation and American chest-thumping and the rest of the world’s tittering behind its politely positioned hands.

Until he surfaces in Moscow (ostensibly en route to Ecuador, which can’t quite seem to decide whether it has granted him asylum or not). Here, Snowden gets stuck for initially a few days, then a few weeks, at Sheremtyevo Airport because at some point along the way, the US cancels his passport to prevent him from traveling any further. The Russians are tickled by his presence and very demonstratively do nothing at all. Presumably, they feed him and look after him because a whole horde of journalists is despatched from all over the world to see if they can catch a glimpse of him at the airport and come up empty-handed.

There’s also the whole sub-plot involving the WikiLeaks team of ‘handlers,’ apparently now experts in international whistleblower trafficking, who — like grown-up Hardy Boys, or a politico-hipster version of the Scooby Gang — set out to accompany their precious cargo from Moscow to safety in Ecuador, it is rumoured, via Cuba (because, the wide-eyed media informs us, you can’t really fly directly from Moscow to Quito).

With the Wikileaks crew’s help, Snowden tries to apply for political asylum in Russia and several other countries, carefully selected to not have extradition agreements with the US. Initially, it is reported that Vladimir Putin makes granting asylum to Snowden conditional on him discontinuing his disclosures of the NSA’s activities, something Putin himself seems to think is unlikely: “Considering that he considers himself a human rights activist and a fighter for human rights, he probably doesn’t plan to stop this work, so he should choose a host country and head there.”

Although international relations are by no means in tatters because of Snowden, they are certainly strained in ways we haven’t seen since the end of the Cold War. It is unclear where this affair leaves the superpower and its former nemesis, but Barack Obama’s cancellation of a diplomatic visit to Russia might be an indication of things to come. The NSA Internet surveillance revelations have already had some impact on Germany’s election campaign but the ultimate complicity of both major political parties may prevent it from really swaying things (Merkel’s ruling CDU is fond of pointing out that German-US secret service partnership deals were, in fact, negotiated by the last social democrat government in the post-2001 heyday of the war on terror).

For the time being, Snowden appears to have gained temporary asylum in Russia and left the airport. Some American media voices have tried to hook into our instinctual Cold War aversion to Russia and attempted to reposition the affair to suggest that Snowden was, after all, just a traitor, a spy for our ‘enemies,’ but it appears that practically nobody is buying the story. Polling now suggests Americans think of Snowden as a whistleblower instead of the traitor the US government is trying to paint him as. They also believe his revelations are alarming.

The Obama regime, once perceived as the administration of hope and change, has unwittingly been provoked into showing its true colours – it has half-heartedly proposed a congressional committee to look into the matter but ultimately seems to want nothing more than to smooth over the media brouhaha and continue as before. For once, its inaction cannot be blamed on the political deadlock: the administration seems to be working on the assumption that these hard-to-oversee surveillance measures are actually making a vital contribution to America’s – and the world’s – safety from terrorism. It offers no proof that any of these claims are true, in the same way that nobody in power has ever furnished any evidence that the TSA’s invasive airport security controls are preventing anything at all. Sadly, it has also chosen to engage in what little public debate there has been by issuing a ‘white paper’ that tries to finesse the language of the applicable legislation to create room for the NSA’s own loose interpretation. Publicly, Obama has categorically called Snowden a hacker and “not a patriot” while practically every credible international news organization, including some conservative ones, are hailing him as a whistleblower who really changed things.


To summarize, it now seems all but confirmed that the National Security Agency has built a number of data centres where it stores Internet data intercepted at network peering points (or obtained directly from complicit private sector corporations such as Google and Microsoft).

The agency has a sophisticated set of data mining technologies and software tools allowing it to search the intercepted data in very granular ways, and the Snowden documents (published in The Guardian and elsewhere) provide proof of these capabilities, including screen shots, training materials, etc. Despite its mandate to focus on foreign intelligence, the leaked documents have confirmed that data is intercepted regardless of the nationality — or even location — of its originators. This means that Americans’ communications are being collected by the NSA – something that is not legally their mandate.

Yes We Scan, provenance unclear, seen on RedditFurthermore, the precise access to, and usage of, the data inside the NSA data centres is unclear but appears to be handled in a manner that may interpret the law rather loosely. In essence, the disclosures (some of which have now defensively come from the United States government itself) suggest that the NSA operates on the basis of collecting extremely large volumes of Internet data comprising both ‘metadata’ (the envelope) and content (the message) which it then selectively accesses for some time after the fact to conduct targeted searches. Given how large the volume of data is (some have speculated that ‘everything’ might be a good description but the more technically minded would be disinclined to believe this is possible, even for the NSA), it is transient by nature: the most likely scenario is that the untouched data is cleared out after a few days.

The NSA is overseen by a committee of the US Congress that only receives limited information (that which the NSA decides to report) and cannot consult any opposing opinions in its deliberations (which is, of course, the nature of spying). This cloak of secrecy is applied, purportedly, in order to safeguard national security: if its operations were transparent, the agency suggests, the intelligence it produces would be worthless because those plotting terrorist activities would know that they’re being spied on.

It is, in fact, not really news that these kinds of activities are going on — there have been NSA whistleblowers for years, and their discussions are fairly well documented.2 For those inclined to suspect such things, it was always clear that some level of electronic spying was going on, that certain cloud service providers were probably not to be trusted and that the gradual erosion of civil liberties we were seeing in our airports wasn’t there alone. The reason Edward Snowden’s revelations have stirred up such a response is that they provide concrete proof. What’s more, the proof comes in a strangely irrefutable form: nobody, regardless of their perspective on the claims, has questioned the veracity of the documents because of their immense banality. These training documents and PowerPoint presentations, with their hokey fonts and business-speak, aren’t fabrications. We recognize them as true as soon as we read them: nobody could fake up something in this voice without introducing an element of irony.


Skepticism of the mass media is now something that’s taught in our schools. Teaching ‘media literacy’ is widely accepted across the political spectrum as a best practice. This confirms, to an extent, the idea that most people view the media as a potentially dangerous conduit for the hegemonic control of society. Historical examples of mass media propaganda are abundant even if they feel somewhat remote now — it’s hard for us to watch Nazi newsreel footage today and understand the complete lack of media skepticism that would have made it so powerful. The current fear is that the mechanisms have become even more subtle, more insidious: the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi owns a significant number of Italian news and media outlets, and choices about what isn’t given column space and air time are just as significant as what is. Even more significantly, the unceasing stream of ‘entertainment’ (constituting an immersive and highly believable fake reality) leaves individual viewers no mental bandwidth to engage with actual reality. In the 21st century, television continues to be the people’s opium, even if you’re now getting it on YouTube or from a torrent. Americans watched an average of 34 hours of television per week in 2010 — almost a full work week.

As the media stopped being a platform for the exchange of information and opinion, the Internet began to fill that void. For most who were involved with it from an early stage, its subversive potential was immediately obvious, despite its origins in military technology. The Internet’s most important aspects were the one-to-one and many-to-many communication capabilities it offered: an opening to escape the one-to-many hegemony of the mass media, an opportunity to enter into dialogues with like-minded — or very differently minded — people everywhere.

Importantly, the Internet’s “under the radar” nature for several decades established a kind of free trade zone for new ideas and conventions, gave it a chance to develop its own set of social norms and preferred behaviours. By the time the web emerged in the mid 1990s, the Internet’s M.O. and tone were largely set: it had ways of functioning and self-regulating as a platform for exchanging facts and views, freely and openly. And despite its ever-growing commercial successes, it has managed to preserve (grow, even) these pockets of freedom quite effectively: one need only peek at Reddit or any blog comment thread in 2013 to understand that freedom of expression, on the Internet, is alive and well.

One of the results of such apparent freedom may have been a false sense of security. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. We collectively fell for the Internet’s wonderful offers of free or nearly free services to help us communicate better, shop better, learn better, navigate better – in short, exist. Ask any iPhone user today how they would find a location they don’t know in a foreign city not using their phone and you might get a blank stare in return. As in any other area of life, we fell for the marketing, and fell hard. Even consumers know Google’s internal slogan: “Don’t be evil.” We were co-conspirators and co-creators of the Internet and its offer of security and trustworthiness. Even inside some of these organizations, employees would genuinely believe they were working on moving society forward – not creating untrustworthy software with backdoors for the NSA.

We have also long known about the dark side of the Internet. A culture of hacking also brings with it an element of illegal activities and threats. Malware and viruses are frequently discussed in the media, as are networked exploits such as botnets, DDoS attacks and spammers. Anonymous variously scares or delights us with its campaigns. Until now, it always seemed that one could count on one’s internal compass of good versus evil to keep things in balance, and that the government(s) were on the side of the ‘good guys.’

So when in June 2013 The Guardian began to publish its series of revelations about widespread mass surveillance by the National Security Agency, what seemed to shock people the most was how the Internet, the platform of freedom, had been corrupted — in some ways using its own ideas and innovations3 — to become a tool for surveillance and, ultimately, oppression. While nobody should reasonably have assumed their communications were completely off limits for government surveillance before the Guardian series of articles, the proof provided by Snowden finally helped the suspicions gain critical mass, something that no amount of previous effort by the American Civil Liberties Union had been able to accomplish.


What should our reaction to the NSA Internet surveillance revelations be?

Many different responses are possible to the disclosures. I have observed something akin to the ‘five stages of grief’ in my own responses. Kübler-Ross’ famous model of the emotional stages experienced by individuals facing impending death or other extreme fates posited that they occur in a series with this specific following order: denial — anger — bargaining — depression — acceptance. For a variety of reasons (not least of which is a possibly misguided sense of optimism), I will re-order them here to label my own reactions to the NSA revelations (and those I’ve heard from friends and family).

I Want You to Blow the Whistle in Defense of Our Liberty Poster, unknown provenance, via Reddit“It’s not true”/”I have nothing to hide” (Denial): Admittedly, the “it’s not true” stage was very short for me. Various different professions share the commonplace idea that “the harder you scratch away at the surface of a problem, the deeper you’ll discover it runs.” This kind of skepticism is second nature for me, and no amount of official deflection is going to change my mind. Instead of believing the allegations aren’t true, I actually assume that the real truth is even more awful than what we’ve seen so far. “I have nothing to hide” is another instinctive response that also acts as a kind of denial. What its proponents mean to say is that the issue is unimportant to them because they don’t have anything to hide, so what does it matter if the NSA has access to their communications? I tried this response out for myself for a few days after the initial story broke in The Guardian. But of course it doesn’t work. Nobody should be accessing my private communications regardless of the transmission mechanism used, and regardless of the content, without due legal process underpinning the activity — due process that I am able to interrogate in a court of law, or through an elected representative. It doesn’t matter what reasons are given: neither the ‘war on terror,’ that amorphous, deliberately imprecise catch-all excuse4, nor the desire to prevent crime or save us from ourselves should allow a government agency to breach the trust in personal communications and data storage. To further explore why “I have nothing to hide” is not a legitimate response, read these excellent rebuttals from Danah Boyd, Moxie Marlinspike and Cory Doctorow.

“It’s necessary to protect us” (Acceptance): Americans and many other people who live in advanced industrial societies have grown to accept that they require protecting from terrorist attacks, whether from outside or in their midst, after September 11, 2001. The shock and impotence we felt when trying to process this immense crime — something so unexpected in times of peace — caused us to willingly give up certain freedoms in return for an illusory sense of protectedness. It’s easy to understand why this happened. It was, in a sense, the only ‘deal’ we were presented with: grant greater freedoms to the military-industrial powers, allowing them to manage the ongoing conflict on our behalf; in return, all we had to do was be prepared to subject ourselves to increased airport security, a general militarization of society and being vigilant (”If you see something, say something”). Only a few dissenting voices were heard above the hum of sudden renewed purpose America felt as its troops rolled out to fight wars in far-flung corners to protect us from terrorism. A few dissenters talked about how we were giving up our civil rights in return for something undefined and unclear, about security theatre, about how nobody could prove that any of these measures were actually generating any results at all. The more you scratch away at the surface of the ‘evidence’ presented, the worse it gets here, too: statistics show that air travel has never been safer than in the ten years following 2001. But it is entirely unclear whether this is because of increased airport and on-board security or simply because aircraft are now much more secure than in previous decades.

“I can protect myself by using better security practices/encryption etc.” (Bargaining): Perhaps not surprisingly, Internet users everywhere have started to think about their data security practices again, and whether to use cryptography for their email. Articles outlining the specific technical vulnerabilities inherent in all commonly available technologies started to appear soon after Snowden’s initial disclosures and continue unabated. Intellectually, it is fun to think about outsmarting the government spooks: What if I could hide my communications from them using simple, open-source technologies? This approach is a red herring, of course — a distraction from the real issues. Setting oneself up with a functional end-to-end set of encryption technologies means incurring a number of intolerably impractical compromises in today’s ubiquitous computing environment. The cloud is not the culprit here — technological innovations are ethically neutral, and any valence one tries to project onto them tends to say more about the beholder than the technology. One could indeed take several historical steps back in computing terms and use powerful, basic encryption for both data storage and online communications (provided one had co-communicators using the same impractical setup). However, the answer clearly doesn’t lie in a DIY approach much like the answer to making our global food supply healthier and more sustainable doesn’t lie in growing one’s own vegetables in the back yard.

“This is like Germany in 1933” (Depression): For the historically inclined, one particular thought has been hard to shake: We’ve seen this all before. This is how it starts. There have been various moments in history where just this kind of gradual, almost imperceptible surrender of civil liberties by an economically distracted population results in disastrous government despotism. It doesn’t matter, in fact, that the United States has historically often acted against nations that had fallen prey to dictatorships: the majority of Germans in 1933 believed they were on the right side of history, too. One of the reasons the NSA Internet surveillance revelations resonate so darkly with us is because it is one of two worst-case scenarios we grew up with: apart from a nuclear holocaust, a total information-control dictatorship seemed like the most horrible thing we could imagine. And imagine it we did: books and movies have, since the early 20th century, worked out ever more accurate dystopias depicting what it would be like to live in an environment of total control and surveillance, where authority knows you better than you do yourself. Back in the here and now, we instinctively know what this is, and where it leads: through fiction, we’ve been here before — and we feel caught out because we obviously didn’t give enough of ourselves (voting, political activism, moral rectitude) to prevent the horrible reality from coming true. At this early stage of our attempts at making sense of Edward Snowden’s revelations, total surveillance feels too big to fight.

Edward Snowden - Hope by richnfamous via DeviantARTLiberty’s lost decade5 is coming to an end, and we must reclaim it (Anger): The Internet is no longer just the playground for our imaginations. It is a vitally important platform for communication, knowledge and the development of new ideas. It’s been less than 20 years since it became broadly used, and we can already no longer imagine a world where it doesn’t play a vital role in relation to freedom. It is also a mistake to think of the Internet as part of the ‘media.’ We know instinctively that is is much more than that: the term ‘interactive media’ is a construction from the 90s that captures CD-ROMs and games, not the richness of the Internet in its entirety. To me, the Internet has always been a complement, a counterpart to the material world – less a mirror, more an analogue. If that is true, we ought to act on its behalf in the same way we are trying to act for the physical world’s wellbeing: I don’t yet know what the online equivalent is of opposing Monsanto’s GMO seeds; of rejecting meat in favour of a sustainable diet; of driving a hybrid, walking or using a bicycle; but I know we need to find out.


These threats to our privacy constitute a direct assault on our civil liberties and human rights. I know that may seem extreme to you right in this moment. But history (from which we learn nothing, in the immortal words of both Hegel and Sting6 ) shows us one thing very clearly: every big thing starts somewhere small and seems quite insignificant at the beginning. “If you see something, say something” starts right here, but with a different meaning: clearly, being spied on by the NSA has made many of us very uncomfortable. Polls now show that a majority of Americans are no longer sure the Draconian restrictions of their civil liberties are worth the vague protections they purport to offer. It may not seem like a big thing right now. You may hope that it won’t affect you. But it is, and it will.

The real reason you should care is that unchecked, oblique government surveillance of your communications will ultimately result in the loss of a much greater freedom: the freedom to decide what we want society to be. Moxie Marlinspike writes,

Imagine if there were an alternate dystopian reality where law enforcement was 100% effective, such that any potential law offenders knew they would be immediately identified, apprehended, and jailed. … How could people have decided that marijuana should be legal, if nobody had ever used it? How could states decide that same sex marriage should be permitted, if nobody had ever seen or participated in a same sex relationship?

The cornerstone of liberal democracy is the notion that free speech allows us to create a marketplace of ideas, from which we can use the political process to collectively choose the society we want. …

We can only desire based on what we know. It is our present experience of what we are and are not able to do that largely determines our sense for what is possible. This is why same sex relationships, in violation of sodomy laws, were a necessary precondition for the legalization of same sex marriage.

The freedoms of speech and self-determination are fundamental to democratic societies, including the United States. Yet after 9/11, the US government now believes that these freedoms need to be partially surrendered, in a ‘controlled’ manner, in order to protect them from those who would destroy them. This deeply cynical moment of circular logic can only eat itself. We need to take back these rights and start to guard them with vigilance. Civil liberties are no longer our parents’ problem, they’re ours now.

Some respected international news publications have begun to comment on how 9/11 has affected America in ways that are much more destructive than lives lost and buildings collapsed. For example, Der Spiegel wrote in an excellent opinion piece, “America is sick. September 11 left it wounded and unsettled … but we are only now finding out just how grave the illness really is.” Even The Economist, not normally given to lyricism, wrote that “every intelligence service will impinge on individual liberties … But every democracy also needs to keep those impingements in check and to hold its spies to account. Of all the world’s democracies, the one that should best understand this tension is the United States. Its constitution rests on the notion that the people in charge are fallible. … It is time to remember that.”

Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, the German Green Party faced a pragmatic choice: to continue its stance of focusing on the environment as its single issue, or to develop a complete set of policies and participate in government. In order to effect change, the party eventually re-oriented itself towards full participation and has been an effective conduit for social and environmental justice in Germany, now one of the world’s most advanced nations in those rubrics.

The Snowden revelations may be the digital generation’s Green Party moment.7

I don’t believe for a minute that we can solve the blanket surveillance of Internet traffic by building better tools, hack our way out of this paper bag. I believe this needs to be tackled head-on in the political arena. I think this is a non-partisan issue as it goes to the core of our shared belief in the freedom to think and say whatever we want, and to convert those ideas into reality following the processes inherent in the democratic system.

Here, for once, is something in the political realm that you need to care about — time to organize, time to rally, time to march. Time to do whatever it takes.

  1. NSA-Abhörskandal: Die Datenräuber von der USS “Jimmy Carter” in Der Spiegel, 1 July 2013; the title translates as ‘NSA Surveillance Scandal: Die Data Pirates of the USS Jimmy Carter.’ 

  2. For instance at Defcon 20 in 2012, where a panel including a former NSA employee and an ACLU lawyer discussed some of these activities at length

  3. For example, the search engine functionality used in the NSA’s XKeyscore system is reminiscent of Google itself, and anyone who has spent time “Google-sleuthing” for an obscure fact on the web would have a pretty good sense of how NSA analysts might try to find information needles in the haystack. 

  4. Beautifully called out by Cory Doctorow in a brief video introduction to his novel Little Brother for the students of Chahiro High School in Wood River Junction, Rhode Island. 

  5. In The Economist’s wonderful phrase

  6. Hegel: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” Sting: “History will teach us nothing.” 

  7. It is somewhat ironic that the various ‘Pirate’ parties in Europe have so far been mostly unsuccessful in harnessing the momentum of these issues for their gain. I think this may be related to the fact that their original core issue (intellectual property) has really turned out to be just another intermediate policy issue while the NSA’s Internet surveillance really goes much deeper. The public now identifies the pirates (and their unfortunate name) as single-issue groups, reminiscent of the European Greens when they first started. 

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