The Surveillance State of Tomorrow

By the time you read this, President Obama will probably have finished his speech outlining some changes to the NSA's global information vacuum. According to early reports, he'll propose creating an independent body to hold the phone metadata that the NSA gathers, and forcing the agency to get some kind of approval (presumably from the FISA court) before accessing it. Which is all fine and good. But the real question is whether we set up procedures and systems that constrain the NSA from doing not just what we already know about, but the things we haven't yet heard of, and even more importantly, the kinds of surveillance that will become possible in the future.

Just today, we learned from the Guardian that "The National Security Agency has collected almost 200 million text messages a day from across the globe, using them to extract data including location, contact networks, and credit-card details, according to top-secret documents." I can't imagine that will be the last revelation from the documents obtained by Edward Snowden. Do you find that disturbing? If not, imagine what it's going to look like ten or twenty years from now.

Predicting the development of technology is often difficult to do accurately, but we can be almost positive that in the very near future there will dramatically more information about you being collected than there is today. Your phone metadata is nothing compared to what will be gathered. There will be reasonable justifications for every step along the way, of course, ways in which each new advancement in the technology enhances your life. For instance, eventually the idea of using a piece of metal with grooves cut into it in order to get into your house will seem like a quaint anachronism, and that will be more convenient, since you won't have to carry your keys anymore. Once you have some kind of biometric entry system, it will be linked to other systems in your home that will constantly be producing data about where you go and what you do. You think Google bought Nest because it's interested in temperature adjustment and smoke detection? Of course not. Google is interested in data, and data about what happens in your home—when you come and go, when you're awake and asleep, what kinds of energy you use—that's a growth area.

Your phone tracks your movements, and future phones will monitor much more. There's a network of surveillance technologies, including but not limited to security cameras, that grows more dense and sophisticated with each passing year. Law enforcement agencies across the country use license plate scanners that can monitor everyone who drives on certain roads. These kinds of technologies will be integrated with improved face-recognition software, all powered by increasingly capable computers with the capacity to store, sort, and analyze the huge quantities of data produced. If you want to live as a participant in the modern world—having a smartphone, using the Internet, going out in public—you are already being tracked, and tomorrow you'll be tracked more closely than you are today, your every step leaving bits of data that can be gathered together and reconstructed to learn more about you than you could possibly want corporations or the government to know.

And make no mistake: the NSA wants every bit of it. There is no piece of surveillance data that couldn't at least potentially be used to catch a terrorist or stop a plot, so they'll always be able to say (with complete sincerity, by the way), that they only want to protect national security, and the more information they have about all of us, the easier it will be. So making sure that some semblance of privacy is protected in the future will take a hell of a lot more than sectioning off cell phone metadata. That's a start. But it's only a start.


If only voters were not so schizophrenic on this issue. Any President who actually shut down the covert collection of data would face a veritable inquisition in the event of any terrorist attack, demanding to know why he was not protecting the public. It would not matter whether the particular plot in question COULD possibly have been thwarted with the forbidden data (about the actual terrorist, that is; forgetting the the same data would have had to be collected from innocent individuals in order to FIND the terrorist), or even what the previous position of the inquisitors on the issue had been. In fact, this President has already been accused of everything from negligence to collusion (with his "Muslim brothers") with regard to the Boston Marathon bombing, BY THE SAME PEOPLE who accuse him of being a dictator who snoops into THEIR private lives (as well as the violation of tax laws by conservative 501(c)4 organizations).

I suspected at the time that President Bush actually had surveillance against peaceful opponents in mind when his people rushed through the Patriot Act (already prepared, curiously enough) after 9/11. Whether that was the case or not, once the Presidency has such power, it is not only a temptation for future Presidents to abuse it, it is very hard to let go, partly for the reasons described above. This Presidnt and/or the next will have to make the choice of Frodo: whether to let go of the Ring and let it be consumed in the fires of Mount Doom, or keep it "for the purpose of fighting Sauron," while allowing it to change Frodo gradually into a servant of Sauron.

Anyone who does not understand the literary reference above, ask a "geek" or "nerd" who has seen or read "Lord of the Rings" to explain it.

Naomi Klein's *Disaster Capitalism* predicts the day when disaster services -- firefighting, flood and storm rescue, police response, etc. -- will be available only to those who subscribe to such services and pay the fee. She makes sense because we already see the beginnings of it, i.e., the home safety-alarm system that automatically calls the cops if someone breaks in; the wearable alarm button for the independent elderly that sends help if you fall down and can't get up.

Similarly, this article would make little sense if Snowden had not let us know that the program is already well underway. I don't tweet, I don't text, I don't facebook, I have no pinterest, nor am I linkedin. As some wit suggested a few months back, I keep my cellphone in the stainless steel cocktail shaker. But none of that matters because I've got a computer-- one that's only rarely plugged into the Internet. I'm not so self-important to believe that my traffic is of interest to the intelligence community, but the face that everything I've ever typed, everything I've ever purchased online, and my credit card numbers are in the possession of paranoiacs and voyeurs.

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