Public apathy over surveillance

  • Article by: DAVID RIEFF , Foreign Policy
  • Updated: August 26, 2013 - 8:08 AM
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Photo: Laurie McAdam , Mct

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On their face, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s secret mass electronic data surveillance system should have created a political firestorm for the Obama administration and Congress. Not only have PRISM and related programs been used to collect information about Americans with the cooperation of most major Internet and telephone companies, but when news of the program leaked, officials first insisted that the programs had only tangential domestic implications because they targeted foreigners outside the United States — reassurances that were quickly undone by further revelations. In other words, the government lied to the public and was caught.

Despite apocalyptic claims by government officials that Snowden had gravely undermined their ability to protect Americans from terrorist attacks, it turned out that the “secret” he revealed was one of the most broadly shared secrets in the world. The White House knew, members of the Senate and House intelligence committees knew, and allies like Britain and Germany not only knew but in some cases collaborated in the effort. Companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft may not have known everything, but they knew something. The only group that did not know about PRISM was the general public.

And yet, apart from some voices from the antiwar left and the libertarian right, the reaction from this deceived public has been strangely muted. Polls taken this summer have shown the public almost evenly split on whether the seemingly unlimited scope of these surveillance programs was doing more harm than good. Unlike on issues such as immigration and abortion, much of the public outrage presupposed by news coverage of the scandal does not, in reality, seem to exist.

It is true that the revelations have caused at least some on the mainstream right, both in Congress and in conservative publications like National Review, to describe the NSA’s activities as a fundamental attack on the rights of citizens. For their part, mainstream Democrats find themselves in the uncomfortable position of either defending what many of them view as indefensible or causing trouble for a beleaguered president who seems increasingly out of his depth on most questions of national security and foreign policy.

The press can certainly be depended on to pursue the story, not least because of a certain “guild” anger over the detention recently of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, by British police at London’s Heathrow Airport, and the British government’s decision to force the Guardian to destroy the disks it had containing Snowden’s data — in the paper’s London office with two officials from CGHQ, the British equivalent of the NSA, looking on. But while the surveillance scandal has both engaged and enraged the elites, when all is said and done, the general public does not seem nearly as concerned.

Why? In an age dominated by various kinds of techno-utopianism — the conviction that networking technologies are politically and socially emancipatory and that massive data collection will unleash both efficiency in business and innovation in science — the idea that Big Data might be your enemy is antithetical to everything we have been encouraged to believe. A soon-to-be-attained critical mass of algorithms and data has been portrayed as allowing individuals to customize the choices they make throughout their lives. Now, the data sets and algorithms that were supposed to set us free seem instead to have been turned against us.

Techno-utopianism is looking a bit dented of late, particularly that variant of it that proclaimed social media to be at the heart of the Arab Spring. At the very least, the coup in Egypt seems to suggest that one certainly doesn’t need Twitter to launch a counterrevolution. But while the ideology of technology as liberation may be bloodied, it is as yet unbowed. The truth is that whether they use it in the service of emancipation or repression, most people who have access to the new communications technologies can no longer really imagine living without them. They feel not just pleasurable but empowering.

At the same time, except for some hackers and programmers, this pleasure and empowerment comes only at the discretion of governments and those corporations that control the biggest computers in a network. The pioneer of virtual-reality technology turned critic of digital utopianism, Jaron Lanier, put it well when he said that “every time you post a tweet attacking the 1 percent, you enrich some member of the 1 percent.”

For most people, privacy, too, has become the “shining artifact of the past” that Leonard Cohen once sang about. Indeed, anyone with a mobile phone understands that everything from their bank records to the products they buy online to the telephone numbers they dial and the addresses to which they send e-mails are recorded somewhere — whether by a private business, their own employers, or, of course, the government.

Viewed from this perspective, is it the general public’s comparative lack of indignation over the NSA surveillance scandal that is surprising, or is the real shocker that journalists, activists and politicians feel so outraged? Yes, the U.S. government is indeed the Biggest Brother of them all, but most people go about their daily business being spied on and having their data mined by any number of small- and medium-sized brothers. Of course, someone who is outraged by the attempts to jail the leakers and prosecute and intimidate their journalist and activist colleagues would insist, and rightly so, that these sorts of things should not be permitted in a democracy. But the gap between the outrage of the chattering classes and the public’s apathy — or, more likely, resignation — illuminates the essential difference between the elite’s understanding of the world and everyone else’s.

To put it starkly, members of an elite tend to believe they can change things; most everyone else knows that, except in a few rare instances, they cannot.

Does the public take the revelations of the data-mining scandal as an affront to their liberty? Presumably many do. But life is so full of affronts about which one would be an utter fool to imagine that one can do anything. The automated recordings through which one has to pay one’s bills, arrange an appointment, or try to get information are an affront. The endless passwords, PINs and the like are an affront (and also recorded on corporate databases). The ubiquitous CCTV cameras in city centers are an affront. And of course, all the petty and not so petty impositions of the post-9/11 world — from the demand that one show ID when entering almost any office building in America, to the slovenliness and rudeness of Transportation Security Administration employees at every U.S. airport — are flagrant affronts.

Even if the long war against the jihadis were to end tomorrow with total victory for the United States, can anyone seriously suggest that any of these measures would be canceled?

The great myth of the past 25 years may be empowerment through technology. The great truth of the past 25 years has been the rise of the surveillance state, which grows stronger every day because of the control that states and corporations have over the technology that people depend upon and love. On one level, everyone knows this, but whether it’s because they believe themselves to be immune or because they simply never imagined that the surveillance state had become so all-encompassing, the elites seem to have been particularly surprised and therefore indignant over the scope of the NSA’s spying, the ardor with which governments have defended these practices, and their foaming rage at having to defend them in public at all.

“This is the way the world ends,” T.S. Eliot wrote,” “not with a bang but a whimper.” Welcome to the postdemocratic world. Oh, and by the way, you’ve been living in it for quite some time now.

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