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How to Solve the NSA Scandal: Let Us All See the Secret Files

If Obama put PRISM on BitTorrent everyone would quickly forget about it.
17.6.13

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Remember when NSA stood for No Strings Attached – a kinder, more gentle age where the acronym simply translated to "awkward sex with a 40-year-old housewife at the Lincoln Ibis"? And back before it meant what it does now: weasely grey men crawling into the air ducts of Gmail with a stethoscope and recording everything you wrote to Julia on Google Talk about Becky being a fuckhead?

Nowadays, that acronym is ruined. Even prisms – once chiefly associated with rolling a joint on a Pink Floyd album cover – have been corrupted to mean "sinister faceless American spies rummaging through your digital bins".

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Now, as the Edward Snowden affair moves on into what already feels like its 91st week, Obama is staring down his own personal Watergate – a death-by-a-thousand-cuts fall from grace. Watching the president get older and more beaten-up every single day, it's clear – following those solid Watergate principles – that it isn’t the initial act of badness that will defeat him in the end. It’s the cover-up.

Sooner or later, some ambitious, unscrupulous young intern is going to suggest the only true way the president can dig himself out of this mess. That if, perhaps, the technology itself somehow leaked out for a brief window of time – at least until Google and pals upped their security – everyone could spy on everyone’s else's everything, gifting him the world’s biggest smokescreen.

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The entire PRISM system supposedly only costs $20 million (£12.7 million) a year. That’s about as much as the helmet on one Stealth Bomber. And given the Pentagon’s penchant for making everything cost 50 times what it actually costs – and the fact that evaluating the data is going to need administrators – it seems likely that, at base, PRISM is just one computer program.

If that program unexpectedly turned up on BitTorrent, from then onwards the issue wouldn’t be one of Big Government snooping. It would be a daisy-field of a thousand micro-scandals blooming all around him as enterprising hacks dived into everyone’s data-pools and came up holding a child’s knickers, a crack pipe or a copy of The Protocols of the Elders Of Zion.

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“Alright,” knackered subs would tell editors, “we can run to 300 words on this ‘David Dimbleby spies for Putin’ stuff, but no more. We’ve got ‘Harry not actually Charles’s son’ to come in on page one, then a DPS splash on ‘How Starbucks suppressed evidence of frappucino-cancer link’.”

It would no longer be a US problem for US people. It would be global. It would no longer be a problem pitting government against the people. It would be pitting the people against the people. And as every great ruler – from Alexander the Great to PW Botha – has understood, when things get sticky, you need to divide to rule.

This would be phase one. Much of this would be similar to the opening moves of any great scandal. There would be vigilantism carving up the streets. The sort of people who attacked pediatricians in the wake of Sarah Payne would be back up on it. There’d be so much good morality for them to beat people up over that they’d inevtiably get over-excited and end up just jogging back and forth in the middle of the road, hyperventilating in indecision as to whether they should be "getting" the nonce at number 42 or the gay bishop at 78.

A slide from the NSA's PRISM surveillance program presentation showing the companies accessed through the software and the kind of data they provide. (Image via

There would be more personal score-settling: Becky keying Julia's car because of how Julia had said she was a fuckhead, lying neighbours receiving nothing but unpackaged dog shit through the letterbox for a month. Then, once the first few shockwaves had passed, things would move into a less predictable, more ambiguous zone.

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It’s not as if it hasn’t happened before. Just never so widely, and never with quite as much petty detail. In 1990, former East Germans were confronted with the Stasi archives. The notorious secret police had used a massive network of informers – think of them as like a primitive Google – to keep tabs on the population. The shockwaves ripped through East German society. Husbands and wives who had been spying on each other, parents and children, trusted neighbours, long lists of embarrassing secrets, alphabetised folders of potential blackmail material – all were deposited on the nation’s doorstep in a matter of days.

Husbands and wives divorced. Parents and kids never spoke to each other again. Neighbours had to move away because of the brown waterfalls of shit pouring through their letterboxes. And then… life went on. Everyone, knowing what they now knew, figured out where the rational limits of what they could do about it were, figured that they would be better off just accepting the information than trying to kick against it and surmised that they were actually OK, if they thought about it. A bit wiser, even.

Of course, the fallout from our revelations will take slightly longer to heal. Because the information won’t merely be about the big things, it will be general patterns of behaviour, the weft and weave of the life you’ve tried to hide from people. Nowhere more so than in your Google search history.

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Here, for instance, are some things I have searched for in the past few months:

"Can you get AIDS from licking eyeballs?"

"Christine Lagarde naked"

"Dead baby on fire Mexico City 1999 pics"

"Loneliness cure ‘not drinking’"

"House alarm override PIN codes"

"Ben Elton sitcom torrent"

A slide from the NSA's PRISM surveillance program presentation showing when data collection began for each provider. (Image via)

But that’s OK, because I am no one’s dad. When it is your dad who you discover has been secretly wanking over "hairy transvestite anal" in between booking the family holiday, then bits of you will start to die. As they will continue to do when you stumble onto the news that your mum googled “Divorce settlements – average payout” and that your brother googled “Black Eyed Peas” twice. When you find these lonely chequebook-stubs of malcontent lives, when you see these little openings to nowhere, it will shatter every family in the land. It will split person from person and atomise our frail love-bonds like a social big bang.

And then life will go on. It will simply become background-info – something you keep in your head, like all the other things you know about people that they don’t know you know. We will find within us more capacity for forgiveness than we had imagined. And at the same time, we will strengthen the sense of who we are within ourselves. Just as psychologists gab on about the road to wellness involving getting everything out from "behind the screen", we’d finally understand our fellow humans in a way that all their endless navel-gaze livejournalling had never allowed us to.

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The data would be unerasable. Some Assange-like data messiah would claim it was sacrosanct, that this archive of everyone’s everything should be kept forever on a server registered in The Solomon Islands. It would just be there: 1994 to 2013, preserved in aspic. Not for the first time, people would wonder why the fuck they thought it was so cool to go around hailing these Pirate Party types as social heroes of the new world. Especially given what they’d since found out about Assange’s Skype logs.

But then, after various people had jumped off bridges, slit their wrists or swallowed shotguns/pills, we would just have an accretion of information. Another new layer of data to add to all the drunken photos on your Facebook, all the teenage posturing still locked inside your MySpace. Just another level of zoom on the digital You.

And there it would lie, largely ignored once the initial novelty had worn-off. Entirely ignored once 2014’s Game Of Thrones had hit its stride. Except that every time you applied for a job, some HR rep would look you up on their indexed database and put a little note in your file: "Good CV, 2:1, strong work experience, hates dad for financial reasons, rather a lot of bestial porn (60/40: dogs/horses), seems to have been into bumfights circa 2006."

And then they would put you through to the next round of interviews, because, again, you should see what was on their history. Sci-fi tends to assume that we will develop telepathy through tiny green ball-bearings implanted in our brains. But we could just as well develop it through one tetchy pow-wow in the Oval Office. If Obama wants to recover from this massive intrusion into everyone's private lives, he should just give everyone the keys to the secret filing cabinets. And you know you'd not be able to resist looking. Because we're only human.

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Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes

More stories about the NSA:

Hiding Your Calls and Texts from Big Brother

Why the NSA's Critics Might Secretly Want It to Exist

A Photo History of the NSA, from Its Once-Secret Archives

Yes, the NSA Can Spy On Every US Citizen