Who’s Afraid of the Surveillance State?


Fictional surveillance states are thrilling and almost never subtle. Dictators are ubiquitously projected on vast public monitors, “thought criminals” are dragged away screaming from city squares, automaton armies visibly stand watch, and protagonists are tortured according to their deepest fears. Dystopian narratives of totalized surveillance bring its horror to the fore.

Our very real surveillance state contains no fewer dark elements. There is torture, targeting of dissidents, and armed enforcement aplenty. But the supposedly compelling story — that we are inescapably watched by a powerful corporate-government nexus — is, as a lived reality, kinda boring.

The story of Edward Snowden passing crucial leaked documents from the National Security Agency to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras makes for gripping viewing in documentary film, Citizenfour. Through Poitras’s lens we gain rare access to individuals coming to terms with the enormity of their revelation.

Yet for all the initial furor, the rest of us have accepted disclosures of the NSA’s unbounded data hoarding as an everyday matter of fact. Outside of a dedicated cadre of appalled privacy advocates, activists, and journalists, life has seemingly carried on as normal. Faced with a very real surveillance state, most of us have not cast ourselves as protagonists, or even minor characters, in the story of a struggle against it.

Consider the failure of the USA Freedom Act’s passage in the Senate this week. The proposed NSA reform bill was anemic and too narrow to significantly rein in NSA surveillance powers, especially as it applies to the data of non-Americans. As Glenn Greenwald noted this week, the bill’s focus reflected “the lovely and quintessentially American theory that all that matters are the privacy rights of Americans” while “leaving completely unchanged the primary means of NSA mass surveillance.”

I agree entirely with Greenwald that “the last place one should look to impose limits on the powers of the US government is… the US government.” He rightly points out that significant reform will not come through legislative efforts, but through widespread shifts in our individual online behavior and the use of tools that make the work of spies more difficult, ideally to the point where they’re simply not worth the effort.

“Governments don’t walk around trying to figure out how to limit their own power,” Greenwald writes, “and that’s particularly true of empires.”

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