Seven months after The Guardian and The Washington Post first broke stories based on top secret documents leaked by former NSA-contractor Edward Snowden, his disclosures have already been hailed as “the biggest intelligence leak in history.” Reports based on Snowden’s documents have been published at a steady clip by media outlets around the world since they began in June, in an apparent blindside to Obama and the NSA. The US government has been in damage control ever since, prompting Obama to deliver a lengthy speech announcing minor spying reform on the 17th of last month. Using the text of this speech as a jumping off point, I’ll examine the underlying assumptions that drive US surveillance policy.
Cloaked in the rhetoric of American exceptionalism, Obama paints a deceptive picture of the spies at the NSA. He presents government analysts as “patriots,” and “Our friends and our neighbors” who form an integral part of the secretive apparatus Obama fondly calls the “intelligence community.” He takes up a spirited defense of the government surveillance state in the name of fighting terrorists. In his own words:
“Intelligence agencies cannot function without secrecy… Yet there is an inevitable bias…among all of us who are responsible for national security, to collect more information about the world, not less.”
He defends the lack of transparency while at the same pointing to reforms that supposedly increase transparency. He defends the character of NSA analysts and other spooks while simultaneously implying that he’s reeling in their behavior (if not their capabilities, which are virtually limitless). He then lays a groundwork for his vision of a morally superior, paternalistic United States. A nation that has the whole world under surveillance for its own “safety”:
“My administration has spent countless hours considering how to approach intelligence in this era of diffuse threats and technological revolution”
Which leads into an assertion of responsibility for the world’s safety:
“.. A number of countries, including some who have loudly criticized the NSA, privately acknowledge that America has special responsibilities as the world’s only superpower, that our intelligence capabilities are critical to meeting these responsibilities and that they themselves have relied on the information we obtained to protect their own people.
The message: Obama is your patriarch, your protector, and your threat analyst. The NSA spies for your safety. Internet surveillance is for the safety of everyone. NSA Analysts are your friends. Your neighbors. Patriots. Decent folks–
To hell with that. Obama is correct in heralding a “technological revolution,” but the revolution isn’t emancipatory–its the realization of a dystopian nightmare. A good example of this is the Xkeyscore program, a software tool used by the NSA, FBI, CIA and other spooks to search through internet communications.
Searches can narrow in on an email or IP address, unique hardware identifiers, or even a Facebook profile. Xkeyscore acts as a gateway program for government analysis of web visitations, browsing history, email content, metadata, and social networking chats.
But the government isn’t the only culprit here. The big tech companies have been under gag orders about the extent of their collaboration, until very recently when the restrictions were loosened slightly to allow disclosures of government requests in ranges of 1000. On February 3rd, The Guardian reported:
Tens of thousands of accounts associated with customers of Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Yahoo have their data turned over to [The US] every six months as the result of secret court orders, the tech giants disclosed for the first time on Monday….In the most recent period for which data is available, January to June 2013 –Google gave the government the internet metadata of up to 999 customer accounts, and the content of communications from between 9,000 and 9,999 customers…Facebook disclosed that during the first half of 2013, it turned over content data from between 5000 and 5999 accounts – a rise of about 1000 from the previous six month period.
Meanwhile, the mass-collection of phone company data and metadata on NSA servers continues, despite being “sharply rebuked” by the US Privacy Board.
In an editorial published the same day as Obama’s speech, The New York Times summed up several of his proposed reforms as such: “The president announced important new restrictions on the collection of information about ordinary Americans.” But doesn’t their implicit acceptance of the category “ordinary Americans” provide cover for the politicians and spooks The Times is supposedly meant to critique? I don’t desire an end to surveillance of just “ordinary Americans,” “citizens,” or “law-abiding folks.” I want an end to the surveillance and data-harvesting of all the world’s people, citizens of the US or not.
By accepting the notion of the “ordinary American” unchallenged (the subject deemed especially worthy of spying protections), The Times reveals their true class interest: maintaining the status quo and perpetuating the mechanisms of power. The Guardian‘s reportage on the findings of the US Privacy Board is illustrative of this:
Not only did the board conclude that the bulk surveillance was a threat to constitutional liberties, it could not find “a single instance” in which the program “made a concrete difference in the outcome of a terrorism investigation.”
“Moreover, we are aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.”
So if the US government’s own review board could not find a “single instance” of mass phone data collection contributing to “the disruption of a terrorist attack,” why does Obama find it necessary to continue them, and why do so many accept at face value his claims that the surveillance programs keep the US safe?
In the age of austerity and worldwide unrest, the answer lies in what the government fears: not only terrorist attacks from abroad, but resistance within the country. The government has oiled the gears of its spying apparatus to anticipate unrest at home and analyze the online networks of subversives. Where resistance breaks out, new surveillance systems (and more police) are quickly ushered onto to the scene.
Much of this has already been well documented, such as the exposure of the Tartan program, used to map the social networks of anarchists and other rebels within the United States. Documents released by the FBI under Freedom of Information Act requests show the government targeted Occupy factions throughout the country for surveillance during the height of protests in 2011 and 2012. Government repression of radicals is nothing new- the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, beginning in the 50s, worked to destroy radical networks throughout the country.
But the tools available to today’s spooks are an order of magnitude higher. Surveillance cameras loom over an increasingly larger part of public space that was once thought of as a commons. Social connections are intermeshed (or constructed!) with email accounts, cell phones, and online memberships and profiles. And according to a report from Wired supported by documents Snowden leaked, “the NSA has managed to thwart much of the encryption that protects telephone and online communication”. This has implications for the kinds of information you’d imagine is the most secure: think bank transactions, money orders, or anonymous donations.
None of this is to say that domestic surveillance is the primary focus of NSA activities- no doubt much of their energy goes into collecting intelligence abroad, as they vehemently insist is the case. But in the era of PRISM, Xkeyscore, and bulk collection of phone company metadata, it’s important to recognize that the US spying apparatus, from a technical standpoint, is fully capable of turning its lens to the domestic front at a moment’s notice.
Obama’s favored tactic is to wrap up the surveillance state in a bloody American flag: classic misdirection. But his poisonous commitment to antiquated ideas of American exceptionalism and US-as-world-policeman are more likely to bring attacks on this country than standing down and ending the War on Terror would.
We can’t trust the government to keep us safe, and we certainly can’t trust Obama. Lets take care to remember that if Edward Snowden hadn’t leaked classified information, the President would still be refusing to acknowledge the existence of these surveillance programs, much less attempting to reform them. All of the actions he’s taken to “rein in” NSA spying are merely attempts to cover his own ass. Don’t let the politicians pull the wool over your eyes on this one.
All Obama quotes are taken from the transcript of his January 17th speech, available here.
For further reading on technology and surveillance from an antagonistic perspective, check out FireWorks: A Bay Area Anarchist Counter Information Project.