All posts by Gilles Tom-Cruise

I’m not bored with the NSA

“Today, no telephone in America makes a call without leaving a record with the NSA. Today, no Internet transaction enters or leaves America without passing through the NSA’s hands.” — Edward Snowden

“One does not have to be a seer to know that there is no position so good that it cannot be outflanked by much superior forces… But in certain cases it is good to be indifferent to this sort of knowledge.” –Guy Debord

Recent developments in technology have changed the way we organize political movements and that has had far–reaching effects. The new technologies have seemingly enabled a wider audience for trending movements. In the US, Occupy was one of those materializations. As much as it was a time of communion, Occupy was also a moment for recognizing the forces that dominate our lives. If it was previously unclear, there is no question now that the methods of surveillance are becoming as complex, if not more so , than the methods for transmitting information – for networking, passing fliers, organizing neighborhoods, etc. In fact, they are functionally the same. . Movements that find some form online should be seen as experiments in the strengthening of Empire, . We should question the role such movements play in a larger time–line and how those will be viewed and subsequently be absorbed by networks of power.

Edward Snowden’s leaks affirmed what many were already suspicious of: The National Security Agency is involved in extensive data collection on Americans, while it purports to operate solely under the guise of foreign intelligence objectives. The way that this organization inserts itself into disparate networks is through the collection of communications, from cell phones, email social media, etc. Mainstream media portrayals often try to ameliorate worries by repeating that what the NSA is concerned with is “metadata.” . It can include names, phone numbers, times of calls, email subjects, IP addresses, online searches, and more. Often this sort of data is embedded in the communication processes that we are engaged in every day. Put simply, metadata is data about data In metadata, our complex social networks are put in an understandable form. That the government attempts to write off NSA collection of metadata as somehow not an intrusion into American privacy is laughable. The data collected by the NSA is stored long term. allowing the agency to construct intimate portraits of everyone engaging in the targeted technologies. One of the larger projects undertaken by the agency is a mapping of “social networks” of Americans – this is how the data collected and saved is being utilized.

The NSA is engaged in a war on the American people. The NSA operates under the Department of Defense with the goal of the perpetuation of neoliberal capitalist democracy. The US Military has already said that it “[intends] to treat cyberspace as a military battleground” (New York Times). The free flow of information that was fostered in with the digital age is seen as a threat – both to commerce and accompanying US interests, foreign and domestic. The paradox of the Internet is that the prospects of total control are even greater as the American public grows more dependent on the Internet (due to the relatively free communication it makes available and also due to the necessity for most to use such technology in their work lives, at least.)The US is strengthening its ability to exploit this dependency, making subjects engaged in this seemingly free flow decidedly less free.

Our postmodern lives are full of contradictory urges, which ensnare us as they open up new realms of possibility. In some ways, this is an all–too–familiar set–up. Radical struggles must remain conscious of this asymmetrical positioning that appears to dominate our lives. Openings in power are not always apparent. There is the pull between needing to communicate through accessible means and knowing that such communications are not secure. We desire privacy and autonomy, while our private lives are being saved in massive databases. Sometimes, you have to send an email, make a phone call, find a friend. It is unclear whether we are standing on quicksand or cement. We may still have to find a nearby branch to pull ourselves out.

US government builds its case through lies, adding to the uncertainty of our position. Despite all of the leaks that prove otherwise, the agency insists that “All of the NSA’s work has a foreign intelligence purpose… Our activities are centered on counterterrorism, counterproliferation and cybersecurity” (New York Times via Gawker). The spectacle is reinforced in the media portrayals of, or lack of portrayals of, such violations of privacy. Liberal apologists point to values of transparency, while the more bumbling conservative elements bring up the old “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide.” But the fact is that the subtleties of our lives are being opened to deeper exploitation than we may know. The watchers are concerned with patterns and these patterns open themselves up to new conclusions about governing the populace.

History has shown that private companies play a large role in enabling the surveillance of US citizens. The NSA would find it harder to do its work if there were not obliging communications companies like AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, etc. to provide backdoors into their networks. . The History of the NSA proves this. Robert McChesney writes in his latest book, Digital Disconnect, that “‘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’” (the Institute for Public Accuracy). Private companies generally hide behind the law. The state is there as an authority to point to when the outcomes aren’t favorable. Similarly, the state will hide behind private companies when it proves convenient. Each relies on the other. In so many ways, the government is shaping the world in a way that will make it more conducive to big business. Whenever fitting, business will support this project.

Google recently mapped the once impenetrable canals of Venice, sending a man with a backpack–mounted camera to map the canals. Google cheerily responded that no one made a fuss. With the sheer volume and speed of such projects, it is never clear what is a problem and how to deal with it. In the age of hyper–surveillance, maybe our goal is to promote mystery, obscuring the truth. Certainly the institutions with power have no qualms doing the same for themselves, while exploiting our vulnerability.

With advanced tracking technologies, our positions are knowable. We do not always know what is in store for us. We know that practically anyone is accessible. But there is also the power of obscurity, which has been proved by the whistleblowers, like Edward Snowden, who have chosen to work for the American public. Snowden’s leaks have been instrumental in the understanding of how the NSA collects information. The act of whistleblowing is itself an act of defiant communication – using a position only accessible by a select few to bring relevant information to the foreground. When a leak happens, the world can quickly have access to documents in question. The mountain of evidence shows the efforts of the US government to monitor the populace. The situation is difficult to pin down, for we are left guessing about what sort of position we might be in the future, while the boundaries of the board are in flux. There is some reason to worry about the possibilities for autonomy in the future. We might not ever find our way.