The NSA Leaks and How the Media We Consume Will Consume Us

“There’s a search box and they own it, and we put our dreams in it, and they eat them,” said Columbia Law professor Eben Moglen in a lecture called “Freedom of Thought Requires Free Media” at last year’s re:publica conference in Berlin. His was not a new revelation, even then.

“The rules we made in 2001 said, we will keep information about people not suspected of anything for a maximum of 180 days then we will discard it. In March [2012], in the middle of the night, on a Wednesday, after everything shut down, when it was raining, the Department of Justice and Director of National Intelligence in the United States said, ‘Oh we’re changing those rules, this small change, we used to say we would keep information about people not suspected of anything for only 180 days maximum. We’re changing that a little bit to 5 years, which is infinity. I joke with the lawyers I work with in New York that they only used 5 years because they couldn’t get the sideways 8 to fit in the press release.”

Guess who was quoted in that press release?

“Following the failed terrorist attack in December 2009, representatives of the counterterrorism community concluded it is vital for NCTC to be provided with a variety of datasets from various agencies that contain terrorism information,” said Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, “The ability to search against these datasets for up to five years on a continuing basis as these updated Guidelines permit will enable NCTC to accomplish its mission more practically and effectively than the 2008 Guidelines allowed.”

A senior White House official had just recently told Moglen of the government’s need for a “robust social graph” of every American citizen and with whom they associate. The video of his lecture is at the bottom of this page, cued right up to the revelatory three-minute clip referred to above. This, a year before the recent whistle blower allegations about the NSA Prism program.

Moglen went on to say of our spying social networks, “They tell us who we are right back – if you like that, you’ll love this – and we do. They figure us out, the machines do, every time you make a link, you’re teaching the machine.”

That the NSA and FBI and who knows who else (ahem, NYPD) are keeping records and requesting information about American citizens not suspected of anything is something that has long been bubbling under the surface of our society. It has chilled conversation on Facebook and isolated us from speaking about our opinions in public lest we offend and suffer consequences in lean economic times (at least for some of us).

It’s important, Moglen noted, for many reasons, but the main one being this.

“Now we begin a new phase in the history of the human race. We are building a single nervous system which will embrace every human mind. We are less than two generations now from the moment that every human being will be connected to a single network in which all thoughts, plans, dreams and actions will flow as nervous impulses in the network and the fate of freedom of thought, indeed the fate of human freedom altogether, everything that we have fought for, for one thousand years, will depend on the neuro-anatomy of that network. Ours are the last generation of human brains that will be formed without contact with the net. From here on out every human brain, by two generations from now, every single human brain will be formed from early life in direct connection to the network. Humanity will become a super organism in which each of us is but a neuron in the brain. And we are describing now, now all of us, now, this generation, unique in the history of the human race, in this generation we will decide how that network is organized; unfortunately we are beginning badly.”

Historically, in the struggle for freedom of thought, Moglen teaches us, “The basic concern was for the right to read in private and to think and speak and act on the basis of a free and uncensored will.”

Building a surveillance society by design and out of fear will get us exactly what we should fear most: thought control. Recent leaks by Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have revealed the truth about government intent for the digital era, and at its core the purpose is to eliminate the privacy to think in favor of the mass ability to predict.

Last year Julian Assange told The Guardian, “The last 10 years have seen a revolution in interception technology, where we have gone from tactical interception to strategic interception,” he explains. “Tactical interception is the one that we are all familiar with, where particular individuals become of interest to the state or its friends: activists, drug dealers, and so on. Their phones are intercepted, their email communication is intercepted, their friends are intercepted, and so on. We’ve gone from that situation to strategic interception, where everything flowing out of or into a country – and for some countries domestically as well – is intercepted and stored permanently. Permanently. It’s more efficient to take and store everything than it is to work out who you want to intercept.”

Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer might say recent leaks are not “brand-safe.” Snowden’s worst offense in leaking details of programs like Prism, when it comes down to brass tax, is that he spoiled, once and for all, America’s brand of democracy. Until now, we didn’t feel like Obama could approve of this, but now we know he does. We all knew surveillance was happening, even if we didn’t know it, and now our government, supposedly charged with protecting us – and they have quite a poor record of success – have no leg to stand on to challenge despotic countries that do the same.

Take for example, this quote from the New York Times on June 14, 2013 about Snowden’s leak, which came out in Hong Kong. “Western experts have long said that the dividing line between the civilian sector and the government is very blurry in China. State-owned or state-controlled enterprises still control much of the economy, and virtually all are run by Communist Party cadres who tend to rotate back and forth between government and corporate jobs every few years as part of elaborate career development procedures.”

Replace “China” with “United States” and “Communist” with “Capitalist,” “Republican” or “Democrat” and it sounds familiar.

Snowden showed the world that American politicians had, years ago, begun to allow their spies to do the things they frowned upon other countries for doing [ahem, China], even if we asked our tech industry not to supply the tools international despots need to spy on their own people [ahem, China]. They did anyway, and as it turns out we’ve been doing the same all along, masking the collection of data with the benefits of a social network and building robots to follow us around the web as “marketing tools.”

The ironic thing is our government creates platforms for supposed anonymity like the TOR projectdownloadable here for free – mostly beneficial to those fighting for revolution outside of the United States, like our government’s apology for supporting despotic regimes.

Moglen says of our social networks, “The media we consume, consumes us, and then spits in the government’s cup.”

To most people, it was never going to be obvious that this is what was happening, nor do they think it is a problem because they’ve been told surveillance is about preventing terrorism and Facebook is about enjoying the benefits of connecting to their friends and family online. Consider that Facebook’s true customers – their most favored users – are the marketers who pay them, not the users who create “free” profiles and give away their data. That is a total redefinition of the word free.

Now government sources and mainstream news are also attempting to redefine what a terrorist is to include whistleblowers, hackers, and journalists, mostly for information based crimes. In his book, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, Google’s Eric Schmidt writes, “Neither WikiLeaks nor groups like Anonymous are terrorist organizations, although some might claim that hackers who engage in activities like stealing and publishing personal and classified information online might as well be.”

Our biggest export these days is exactly that: information. The American economy is heavily dependent on extracting your data for free in all sectors, and selling it back to you at a premium. Corporations do not make things here in America anymore; more often they just take them.



What the same intelligence officials Moglen refers in his lecture know about us is that American citizens do not like lists; especially lists of themselves according to their attributes. Like gun registration databases, just hotly debated, or national ID cards, these things have always held the promise of totalitarianism. But while we weren’t looking, the government created the largest database of them all and it is of each and every one of us, as well as a lot of folks in other places too. Oh silly NRA members, they probably already know if you have a gun, and I bet that registry you fear already exists based merely on the information derived from the cookies on your computer. But do you know what those are?

As Moglen describes it, the government wants to “make the human population readable.” It’s quite fascinating to watch, but the negative social impacts are emerging, isolating us more than connecting us as once promised.

It’s just the same way that the supposedly free trade agreements of the 1990s were pushed on us – modern consumerism would bring democracy to the world and cheap conveniences to our lives. Except it seems more like exploiting the workers of the world has cheapened American democracy by building a futuristic police state that blends public and private interests at the cushy center of power, whose current attendants can agree only on one thing: that they need to maintain control and continue America’s mass consumption of goods, digitally.

How to do that when the harnessed horizontal power of the people and the internet could challenge the established hierarchies with few resources and a lot of knowledge? Witness the waves of movements across the worlds that have used even social network technology to fell their dictators. Sadly, we thought we felled ours when Barack Obama was elected. The thing he was best at, turns out, was campaigning on promises – not fulfilling them.

The complicated thing about all of this is that it is complicated. It is possible for the same community-organizing black Harvard-trained lawyer turned president to also be the horrifying head of a classified operation to secretly target and imprison people all over the world. If that same operation were to be applied domestically, perhaps not under this president, but later under another, and especially in conjunction with the NSA Prism program, I think we all know what kind of society we would then live within, and it follows that we are laying the groundwork now. It’s exactly what Julian Assange, and now Snowden – whatever you think of these men personally – have warned us of: turnkey totalitarianism.

The argument made and often referenced in support of surveillance programs is that if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear, but fear is central to that propaganda. Usually people who have exponentially more secrets than any average citizen, like Schmidt, a major government contractor and advisor, are making that argument.

“The things we read watch us read them,” Moglen tells us. Adding, “We are predicted by the media we use.”

The problem isn’t that we shouldn’t have anything to hide, it’s that we should each individually have the right to retain our freedom of thought, and having freedom to information and the privacy to think is critical to the foundation of a truly free society.

Here are some steps you can take to mediate the surveillance of your devices.


Nicole Brydson Written by:


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