When Edward Snowdon's revelations about pervasive NSA surveillance first came to light, I thought the worst thing that could happen would be for people to be faux-raged for a little while and then to turn their attention to the next big news story. Has that already happened? Sometimes I think so, sometimes I don't.
What I'm sure of is that, even as the revelations keep coming, I keep hearing from smart, educated, responsible, thoughtful people -- friends, family, and acquaintances -- that pervasive surveillance is old news; not a meaningful invasion of privacy; and/or a 'necessary compromise' to keep evildoers in check.
It's not a gimme to push back against these arguments. It's complicated. There are multiple aspects of what's worrisome about a pervasive surveillance state, some of them are related in non-obvious ways, and even the most avid newshound is hobbled by the simple truth that civilians and even most experts are working from incomplete information. The reasons we ought to take pervasive surveillance seriously are complex. Some of the complexity is technical, while some is social or political.
I think that several months after Glenn Greenwald first broke the Snowdon leak story in The Guardian, it makes sense to examine aspects of the most consequential issues his leak raised, through some of the best journalism that has emerged since. By "best" I mean "most clarifying" or "most illustrative"; there's some wildly speculative and hyperbolic muck out there ... and while I recognize that not everyone will award golden "most clarifying" stars to the same pieces I do ... well, that's why there's a comments section.
I'm not going to try to examine all the important aspects of pervasive NSA surveillance. I'm not that smart. And there's no room for that thorough an examination in a single essay, not even this ridiculously long one!
Here are key points I'll touch on in this post:
- The data that's being gathered reveals an enormous amount about an individual's activity in social, economic, and political spheres.
- Surveillance data being harvested today places ordinary people at risk of persecution by the present and any future government.
- Nefarious use of surveillance data could easily look like current "civil forfeiture" practice applied to ordinary people.
- The strategies used by the NSA to enable pervasive surveillance may have already undermined the trust and security of the internet itself, on which enormous sectors of economic, political, and social activity depends.
More below the fold...