Fictional surveillance states are thrilling and almost never subtle. Dictators are ubiquitously projected on vast public monitors, "thought criminals" are dragged away screaming from city squares, automaton armies visibly stand watch, and protagonists are tortured according to their deepest fears. Dystopian narratives of totalized surveillance bring its horror to the fore.
Our very real surveillance state contains no fewer dark elements. There is torture, targeting of dissidents, and armed enforcement aplenty. But the supposedly compelling story — that we are inescapably watched by a powerful corporate-government nexus — is, as a lived reality, kinda boring.
The story of Edward Snowden passing crucial leaked documents from the National Security Agency to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras makes for gripping viewing in documentary film, Citizenfour. Through Poitras's lens we gain rare access to individuals coming to terms with the enormity of their revelation.
Yet for all the initial furor, the rest of us have accepted disclosures of the NSA's unbounded data hoarding as an everyday matter of fact. Outside of a dedicated cadre of appalled privacy advocates, activists, and journalists, life has seemingly carried on as normal. Faced with a very real surveillance state, most of us have not cast ourselves as protagonists, or even minor characters, in the story of a struggle against it.
Consider the failure of the USA Freedom Act's passage in the Senate this week. The proposed NSA reform bill was anemic and too narrow to significantly rein in NSA surveillance powers, especially as it applies to the data of non-Americans. As Glenn Greenwald noted this week, the bill's focus reflected "the lovely and quintessentially American theory that all that matters are the privacy rights of Americans" while "leaving completely unchanged the primary means of NSA mass surveillance."
I agree entirely with Greenwald that "the last place one should look to impose limits on the powers of the US government is… the US government." He rightly points out that significant reform will not come through legislative efforts, but through widespread shifts in our individual online behavior and the use of tools that make the work of spies more difficult, ideally to the point where they're simply not worth the effort.
"Governments don't walk around trying to figure out how to limit their own power," Greenwald writes, "and that's particularly true of empires."
The Senate bill was watered down from its original proposed form, but it nevertheless failed in the face of GOP speechifying about how mass NSA surveillance was a necessary defense against Islamic State world domination. The Republicans sure know how to wield a scary story for political gain. The importance of the defense of privacy has proved less sexy. Compared to the visually, self-consciously arresting (and terrorizing) bogeyman of the Islamic State with severed heads in hand, the sprawling architecture of NSA data centers in the office parks of Fort Meade are undeniably banal.
As Ingrid Burrington wrote for Creative Time, the visual landscape of the surveillance state is comprised of "bland temples to the many demigods of an infinitely complicated cult." The process of mass surveillance is dizzyingly complex, involving armies of contractors, secretive spy courts, and labyrinthine legal frameworks to justify the unjustifiable. But it's dull to look at.
"The buildings were buildings, decked in surveillance cameras and filled with humans doing their jobs," Burrington observed.
Of course, the surveillance state does not reside entirely in intelligence office parks. It lives in the online networks and cell phone towers through which our every communication passes, it has purchase in the back doors written into the code of our email services, it lurks in our unencrypted messages. It is everywhere and nearly everywhere unseen — and therein lies the threat of insidious and totalized systems of governmental control.
The importance of privacy cannot be overstated. Subjects who know that they are the targets of state observation are controlled and managed by this knowledge; dissent and creativity are foreclosed by the effect of being observed. Yet this is a creeping control and one that latches, perversely, onto the very freedoms ostensibly provided by contemporary networked communications.
While Snowden's revelations have certainly prompted a considerable uptick in the use of and demand for encryption technology, the surveillance state watches on, largely unscathed. The fight against it has not grown sufficiently in scale, I think, because the pernicious effects of totalized surveillance tend to be subjectively imperceptible and tacitly internalized. This variety of control isn't as visceral as the crack of a riot cop's baton or the slam of prison cell door.
The condition produces a new normality that doesn't feel like a constant affront to liberty. But it is, in fact, worse than the dramatic dystopia of Nineteen Eighty-Four — as Snowden himself noted, the totality of Orwell's surveillance state is preferable to our own because we choose to be oblivious of our subjection, happily continuing to use the very phone networks and websites that ensure our numbering among the tracked and watched.
We don't choose to be surveilled in the sense implied by the GOP, as some conscious decision bolstered by fear of a monstrous enemy breaching our national security fortress. It's less dramatic than that. We passively surrender ourselves to the machinations of the state, which functions like a contractor business park — just buildings filled with humans doing their jobs, connected to surveillance cameras everywhere.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard
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