If we are to believe the same set of intelligence officials who have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to lie in order to protect the secrecy of their nefarious surveillance activities, the people of the United States are currently living—for the first time in the better part of a decade—without the federal government collecting information about every e-mail they send and every phone call they make. It has been raining for the past three days here in New York, but with the Patriot Act at least temporarily expired, each morning has been a little beautiful.
Whatever happens today in the Senate, whether or not Congress passes the White House–backed USA Freedom Act that has been rightly dubbed “milquetoast” by the Intercept’s Dan Froomkin, it is worth pausing to consider how far things have moved in the almost exactly two years since Edward Snowden released to their proper owners documents showing that the National Security Agency had been partnering with private corporations to scoop up and store unprecedented amounts of data related to Americans’ private communications.
In The Nation’s first issue to go to press after the Snowden leaks, an assortment of writers and lawyers picked apart what the documents revealed. Marcy Wheeler contextualized the news in the history of surveillance in the post-9/11 era, and computer scientist Jaron Lanier unpacked the mystique around the term “metadata,” and demonstrated the totalitarian potential in harboring vast amounts of it in semi-permanent storage facilities. Yet the most penetrating assessment came, unsurprisingly, from the since-silenced pen of Jonathan Schell, who wrote in “The Surveillance Net”:
What should Americans do when all official channels are unresponsive or dysfunctional? Are we, as people used to say, in a revolutionary situation? Shall we man the barricades? The situation is a little more peculiar than that. There is a revolution afoot, but it is not one in the streets; it is one that is being carried out by the government against the fundamental law of the land. That this insurrection against the constitutional order by officials sworn to uphold it includes legal opinions and legislation only makes it the more radical and dangerous. In other words, the government is in stealthy insurrection against the letter and the spirit of the law.
What’s needed is counterrevolution—an American restoration, returning to and reaffirming the principles on which the Republic was founded. Edward Snowden, for one, knew what to do. He saw that when government as a whole goes rogue, the only force with a chance of brining it back into line is the public. He has helped make this possible by letting the public know the abuses that are being carried out in its name…. He based his actions on the finest traditions of this country, which its current leaders have abandoned but which, he hopes, the current generation of Americans still share. In the weeks and months ahead, we’ll find out whether he was right.
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A year and a half later, Edward Snowden sat down in Moscow for an interview with Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen. It is a fascinating, expansive read, featuring Snowden’s thoughts on President Obama, surveillance as a civil-rights issue, and the definition of patriotism, not to mention a photo of the hero himself eating ice cream from a bowl. Impossible to summarize or excerpt in a representative way, here is my favorite part, which connects to some of what Schell had written:
From the very beginning, I said there are two tracks of reform: there’s the political and the technical. I don’t believe the political will be successful, for exactly the reasons you underlined. The issue is too abstract for average people, who have too many things going on in their lives. And we do not live in a revolutionary time. People are not prepared to contest power. We have a system of education that is really a sort of euphemism for indoctrination. It’s not designed to create critical thinkers. We have a media that goes along with the government by parroting phrases intended to provoke a certain emotional response—for example, “national security.” Everyone says “national security” to the point that we now must use the term “national security.” But it is not national security that they’re concerned with; it is state security. And that’s a key distinction. We don’t like to use the phrase “state security” in the United States because it reminds us of all the bad regimes. But it’s a key concept, because when these officials are out on TV, they’re not talking about what’s good for you. They’re not talking about what’s good for business. They’re not talking about what’s good for society. They’re talking about the protection and perpetuation of a national state system.
I’m not an anarchist. I’m not saying, “Burn it to the ground.” But I’m saying we need to be aware of it, and we need to be able to distinguish when political developments are occurring that are contrary to the public interest. And that cannot happen if we do not question the premises on which they’re founded. And that’s why I don’t think political reform is likely to succeed.
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In the old days, if the government wanted to know what you were reading or thinking about, it could search your home to see what was there—but that required probable cause of criminal activity and a warrant. And even then, it would find only those materials that you kept on hand; it would have no real way to know what you were thinking about, short of asking you directly. Now it can download your search history from Google, which knows better than you do yourself what you have been thinking about. And the computer never forgets.….
Privacy has never been more vulnerable than it is today. The digital era has brought us many delightful conveniences, but it has simultaneously created previously unthinkable perils. Some have pointed to these developments to argue that privacy is already dead. That’s a dangerous overstatement: reports of privacy’s demise are, for the moment, greatly exaggerated. But it may be on life support. And unless we insist on new rules to govern and regulate the use of these new technologies, it’s not only our privacy that will be lost, but all that depends on privacy as well—including democracy itself.
Jonathan Schell’s article appears in our collection Surveillance Nation: Critic Reflections on Privacy and Its Threats, alongside dozens of other pieces The Nation has published on surveillance since 1931, with an introduction by David Cole. It is available as a paperback or e-book.
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