Will NSA leaks wake us from our techno-utopian dream?

A vast surveillance state is being made possible by the technologies that we were told would liberate us.

Ridhard Drew/AP
They're standing for Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker. In the era of big data, who will stand for all of us?

Could the leaks about the extent of the National Security Agency's surveillance of US citizens be the death knell of techno-utopianism?

Well, if we're lucky. The notion that the Internet, cellphones, and related digital technologies would set us all free - the definition of "free" generally determined by the political biases of whatever polemicist you happened to be reading -- has been a durable one for years now. Citizens would evade government censors, tweet and Facebook their way to revolution, and forge new, and better, democracies.

Anonymity and encryption would ensure the free flow of information, and people empowered by technology would be the bane of tyrants and government abuse everywhere. Bitcoins would be the new global currency, Wikipedia a new and better global university, and white-hat hackers would be our standard bearers. WikiLeaks would avenge and expose injustice and the global capitalist successes of companies like Google would be evidence that you could do well while not being evil. 

Well, it was a nice fantasy while it lasted.

While it's been clear to some for a while now that the Internet isn't exactly the magic democracy machine it has been cracked up to be (a great place to start in this vein is Evgeny Morozov's 2011 book, The Net Delusion), a rosy glow continues to surround the information age and its potential to remake human societies. 

But the sheer extent of the US government's digital surveillance efforts, revealed by former CIA employee and NSA contractor Edward Snowden to The Guardian and The Washington Post this week, will hopefully bring techno-skepticism to a broader audience. Amid the debates over the legality and constitutionality of the government's PRISM and related programs, whether Mr. Snowden is a whistle-blower or traitor, whether marginally greater safety is worth the intrusion on private citizens' lives, there is one indisputable fact: The US and other governments have more information about the habits of their citizens at their command than at any other time in human history. Orders of magnitude more, and growing every day.

Will they use their new powers for good or ill? Well, the track record of human history doesn't provide much ground for reassurance. And while the discussion that President Obama now says he wants about these issues (after keeping the expanding programs secret for years) may yield more robust laws to protect US citizen privacy, China or Pakistan or Kazakhstan may have different ideas.

That the "Internet" and all that goes with it is simply a technology, a tool, that is value-neutral on its own, should be self-evident. But the opposite case has been peddled by powerful and influential people who have profited handsomely from this new world. 

Case in point is Eric Schmidt of Google. The Internet giant has, according to one of the NSA slides Snowden gave to The Guardian, been feeding information into the PRISM system since Jan. 14, 2009. Though the company denies any knowledge of the program, it uses the same no "direct access to our servers" formulation that's been used by the eight other companies involved.

As PRISM was hoovering data from Google, Mr. Schmidt was penning, with Google Ideas Director Jared Cohen, The New Digital Age, a paean to the transformative power of our new technologies. It contains some doozies. Like: "The collective power of the online world will serve as a tremendous deterrent to potential perpetrators of brutality, corrupt practices and even crimes against humanity" and; "As governments look for ways to persuade ex-combatants to turn in their AK47s, they will find that the prospect of a smart phone might be enough to get started." And, "In the future people won't just back up their data; they'll back up their government."

Mr. Morozov has a typically amusing criticism of the book's apparent argument that everything old is new again (h/t Joshua Foust):

The problem is that you cannot devise new concepts merely by sticking adjectives on old ones. The future depicted in The New Digital Age is just the past qualified with “virtual.” The book is all about virtual kidnappings, virtual hostages, virtual safe houses, virtual soldiers, virtual asylum, virtual statehood, virtual multilateralism, virtual containment, virtual sovereignty, virtual visas, virtual honor killings, virtual apartheid, virtual discrimination, virtual genocide, virtual military, virtual governance, virtual health-insurance plans, virtual juvenile records, and—my favorite—virtual courage. The tricky subject of virtual pregnancies remains unaddressed, but how far away could they be, really?

To be sure, there are caveats. Schmidt and Cohen write of "the importance of a guiding human hand in the new digital age. For all the possibilities that communication technologies represent, their use for good or ill depends solely on people. Forget all the talk about machines taking over. What happens in the future is up to us."

Well, maybe. But while "us" figures out how to control and contain the potential damage of the era of big data, it turns out governments have been happily setting the rules for themselves – with the acquiescence, at least, of the likes of Google.

If we accept The Guardian's account of Google's cooperation with PRISM, it's interesting to note that a company that profits from sorting through mounds of data and helping advertisers target customers doesn't appear to have mounted much of a legal challenge to the government's demand for access to the information on their servers. Contrast that with their successful fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) last year, which was framed as a battle for Internet freedom but was also good for the bottom line of content distributors like Google (rather than content producers). 

Mr. Snowden himself appears to allude to a dawning knowledge of the downside of the digital world as part of his inspiration to come forward, exposing himself to serious legal repercussions in the process. He told The Guardian's Glen Greenwald that the NSA is "intent on making every conversation and every form of behavior in the world known to them" and that:

... he once viewed the internet as "the most important invention in all of human history". As an adolescent, he spent days at a time "speaking to people with all sorts of views that I would never have encountered on my own".

But he believed that the value of the internet, along with basic privacy, is being rapidly destroyed by ubiquitous surveillance. "I don't see myself as a hero," he said, "because what I'm doing is self-interested: I don't want to live in a world where there's no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity."

Once he reached the conclusion that the NSA's surveillance net would soon be irrevocable, he said it was just a matter of time before he chose to act. "What they're doing" poses "an existential threat to democracy", he said.

The Internet, access to information, the ability of people to communicate and share ideas over great distances and tiny costs, are all wonderful things. But they are also creating indelible records of what every wired person thinks and buys, whom they talk to and how often, and all that is inevitably fed into algorithms designed to spew out answers to every question imaginable, from "Is this person in the market for Pampers?" to "Is this person a dangerous subversive?"

The real conversation we need to be having is to how to control and, yes, regulate this awesome power. The efforts of Mr. Snowden may get that discussion under way.

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