TO UNEARTH SOME latent implications of Edward Snowden’s recent act of whistle blowing, and the landscape of surveillance it has brought to the fore, I propose the following thought experiment. You are to imagine a world in which the infrastructure of potential effective and total citizen invigilation by the state and its proxies is realized, and additionally in which the potential to abolish the private life of the individual is at hand. My question is this: do you think the people of that world should care?
The technical terminology for this scenario is abundant and includes the police state, the Panopticon, Big Brother, and totalitarianism. Yet although these words and phrases are retrospective, my proposed thought experiment is necessarily an exercise in futurism. The surveillance of the fictional Winston Smith was near, yet not total, while in the realm of actual totalitarianism — as populated by Cheka and the Sicherheitsdienst and the Kempeitai and the Stasi — the effort to collect and to see and to know and to control everything in the life of the citenzry was unrealizable.
One is left to wonder what a Stalin or a Mao or a Hitler might have accomplished with today’s supercomputers and other forms of information technology, each day supplanted by even more powerful tools and technologies. The many Snowdens already on the job have a front row seat at the national security state’s dress rehearsal — or, to cite the proper thing itself, the draft PowerPoint presentation — of the more fully realized production. None of this is wasted on that other infamous whistle blower Daniel Ellsberg, whose June 10 Guardian article invites us to ponder the distinction between an actual police state and the democratic regime which behind the curtain just happens to be acquiring police state infrastructure and the user manual. As matters stand, authorities have already arrogated to themselves, and to their private sector proxies, constitution negating powers of warrantless search and surveillance. All of this in the name of combatting terrorism, a cause I happen to esteem both necessary and important, though not by any means.
The surveillance scheme (termed PRISM) operates along two fronts, collecting domestic phone data as well as electronic transmissions originating outside but passing through the United States — in both cases looking for indications of terrorism originating abroad. The Washington Post has reported that there are rules governing the collection of these data, and that the NSA strives for “at least 51 percent confidence in a target’s “foreignness,’” a rather uninspiring benchmark from a group of bloated security agencies with an uninspiring history of corruption and failure.
There is now in the United States alone an estimated half million herd of security factotums who know better than you and I how nearly we’ve approached the conditions sketched out in the little thought experiment of mine, at the beginning of this essay. And even once we’ve arrived — and assuming this arrival is disclosed — there will be those glad to exchange an ounce of presumptive security for a pound of actual rights. Lurking in the bargain is a false dichotomy in which any blow to the security establishment is a triumph for our enemies, a calculation which assumes there is nothing but our skin at risk in the defence of civilization and civility against Islamic totalitarianism.
Those who see in Edward Snowden a traitor should be aware that, like Ellsberg, he employed discernment and shared just a piece of what he knew. That piece concerned and compromised only the presumptions of an over-reaching security establishment. It betrayed the trust of employers and officials who are not exactly themselves in the business of public trust. In sharp contrast to the work of Julian Assange, a precise and law-based claim against a specific set of agencies and actions was made, on behalf of what Snowden deemed an overwhelming public interest. In the meanwhile, a half-million factotums are absorbing this show and presumably noting the wonders of the brave new world just over the horizon and kept as much as is possible from public view.