There is an interesting video of Glenn Greenwald talking about the supposed NSA reforms on the Bill Maher show. I don’t know much about US television, but I guess Maher is another one of those Larry Sanders-type talk show hosts. So Maher’s swipes at Edward Snowden’s sanity, calling him “nuts” for a couple of his statements, may simply be what passes nowadays for banter.
But still, Maher’s selection of Snowden’s statements is revealing only about himself. Snowden is apparently “nuts” for believing that the NSA’s mass collection of information on almost all of us, all the time was “never about terrorism” but about “social control and diplomatic manipulation”. Snowden is also crazy, it seems, for believing that the NSA’s huge data stockpile, a record of much of what almost all of us have been doing on the net, including using social media like Facebook, is intended to let the US state know “every friend you have ever had”.
Greenwald is exactly right to call Maher “nuts” for thinking that Snowden’s nuts. There may be a small amount of exaggeration in Snowden’s second comment but in essence it’s true. In fact, what becomes clearer by the day, as we see that Obama has no intention of relinquishing any of the NSA’s powers, despite the programme’s levels of unpopularity, even among some in the media class, is that the task of the NSA’s data collection is not just to look into the past but to see into the future. It does not have those powers yet but it is waiting for the day when it does.
If you want to get a sense of where they expect this to head think of the 2002 Spielberg movie Minority Report. Tom Cruise plays a cop who relies on the special powers of a government agency to see into the future, to predict the behaviour of citizens. The official justification is that these powers – to read citizens’ minds – are being used for the common good, so that Cruise and his “pre-crime” team can stop criminals before they strike.
In true, reassuring Hollywood style, Minority Report refuses to allow the scenario to move far beyond one of individual fallibility and abuse rather than consider the structural dangers inherent in the system. But for those with a broader perspective the film alludes to the real reason a military-industrial-media complex might want such powers.
Snowden is exactly right that this not really about terrorism, or at least not terrorism in the sense that most of us understand it. The mass of data needs to be collected and stored, precisely because the US surveillance state does not yet have the means to use it to predict our behaviour. The official reasoning is that it is needed to stop crime (terrorism). The reality is that it will be used, as Snowden says, for social control. Or rather, to stop us, the people, from having meaningful agency in a political system controlling ever shrinking resources. As the pie gets smaller, those who own the pie need to have every weapon at their disposal to deal with the rest of us who think we deserve our fair share.
This is not so hard to understand when one realises how the definition of terrorism is constantly expanding to include all forms of modern dissidence, from Wikileaks-style ventures to the Occupy movement.
Just like Ronald Reagan once believed he could use sci-fi technology in outer space to win wars back on planet Earth, Obama and those leaders who follow him are ambitious. They believe they can one day use the historical record of our actions and our web of family, friends and acquaintances to predict what we are likely to think and what we may do. That information is power, not only to control our behaviour but to better design the media – from Hollywood to computer games – to shape our world view, our understanding of who we are and what we are entitled to.
George Orwell predicted that we would end up with a world in which we were all being watched by Big Brother. Aldous Huxley predicted a Brave New World, one designed to keep us pacified and imprisoned by our ignorance.
The more likely future is that we will have both.