The ‘revelations’ that the NSA has been monitoring all US phone traffic for some time, and that most major internet giants have been participating in the PRISM programme, allowing the US to harvest explicit data, have surprised and angered many people. They are prompting a renewed focus on the new levels of surveillance, such as those that helped disrupt the Occupy movement in New York.
Without getting snooty, there are those of us who wonder at the surprise. The capacity for gathering meta-data – no, not the content of phone conversations but how’s calling who, for how long etc – is embedded in the PATRIOT Act. Meta-data collection was ratified by the US Supreme Court in 1979.
But more importantly the very form of the technology is predisposed to collection. The 1979 meta-data collection ruling came at a time when most US phone exchanges were being fully digitised and automated. At that time, there were material limitations – analogue and only semi-automated exchanges required human intervention.
Digitisation has made the data weightless, and essentially unanchored. Information not only wants to be free, it also wants to be harvested. The situation is essentially the mirror of the process of leaking. The Pentagon Papers took Daniel Ellsberg six months to collect, via briefcase and photocopier, day by day. Their volume amounted to less than a thousandth of the material in the Wikileaks ‘cablegate’ archive, loaded onto a Lady Gaga CD.
Furthermore, a moment’s consideration of the technologies we use suggests we have simply left ourselves open to mass monitoring. Mobile phones are obviously a tracking device with a phone component attached. The smartphone ups that ante, allowing the collection of vast amounts of personal data.
Facebook provides a private depot wherein people volunteer their data, and Gmail and Outlook reroute all your most private information through transnational private corporations with an interest in co-operating with power.
Once that point is made most people realise that they are not merely monitored but are doing the work of expediting the delivery of their data to the authorities by the very act of communication. Some people take refuge in the idea that there is now so much data that there could be no useful analysis of it. That simply denies the vast improvements in word-recognition, facial-recognition and other tools, and the determination to use them. Thus the NSA is constructing a new facility in Bluffdale, Utah, with a five zettabyte data capacity: enough to store all communications data for a century.
Legal challenges are currently being made against the Verizon handover, but for the Left there can no longer be a simple recourse to a liberal state that is being hollowed out in any case. The current Left was framed as the ‘New Left’ in the most liberal period of western society and eventually parts of it became state-subsidised. The last vestiges of clandestinity in our political practice died away with the passing of older generations, just – just as the technology of communications fully digitised and the web/internet became the default mode. Hackers and cypherpunks spotted this first before. After 9/11, a public, general and mass attack on privacy and liberal rightsgot underway.
It only became apparent to some of us more recently. That is in part because the Left has – contrary to its earlier history – largely been drawn from the humanities, and regards its key tools and technique as interpretive theory. Yet one of the processes by which this new world has come about has involved the techniques of information and communication themselves becoming a technical practice in which we can intervene.
Over the decades, the gap has widened, so that many of us are now technically inept in the very techniques in which we need to have some competence, not for clandestine purposes, but simply to exercise secure and private communications in the pursuit of political goals.
That means that more of us will need to develop the skills of coding, to have an understanding of the top-level ready-made packages we rely on for communication; and also develop the use of encrypted networks such as Tor, and begin to normalise the use of these for day-to-day communication. That is by no means sufficient solution for all the problems that a global surveillance state portends but it has now become a necessary one.