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The Snowden Files: so much more than state surveillance

A new book on 'the most spectacular intelligence breach ever' falls short of interrogating what the surveillance industrial complex is doing to our societies, to our politics and to our minds.

Today sees the launch of The Snowden Files, a “globe-trotting thriller” which tells, “for the first time in its entirety”, the story of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s disclosure of the scale and inner workings of a vast global surveillance system operated by the US, the UK and their allies.

Written by The Guardian journalist Luke Harding, who worked on several of the Snowden stories, the book provides a synoptic overview of events from Snowden’s first contact with journalists in Hong Kong in June 2013 to his current exile in Russia – with some backstory about his teenage years near Baltimore and the months of disillusionment in Hawaii that led to the leak.

Despite the subtitle “The Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man”, the main subject of the book is arguably not so much Snowden himself (whom the author has allegedly never met nor spoken to, and of whom we are left with a somewhat distant and nebulous impression) but rather the cache of over 50,000 documents that he assembled from top secret government computer networks while he was working as a system administrator under contract to the NSA from Booz Allen Hamilton.

The Snowden Files traces the passage of these documents from NSA facilities in Hawaii to Hong Kong, Brazil, London and New York, as they are smuggled, copied, destroyed, redacted, reported on, locked down, fought over, and speculated about by hacks, spooks and tsars. No small part of the story is dedicated to recounting the part that Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and their colleagues at The Guardian, The New York Times, and ProPublica played in publishing their contents, much to the chagrin of various senior officials trying to hold them back.

Harding’s book deftly recaps what these documents have told us about the various systems that constitute what he calls the “architecture of oppression” – from the NSA’s soaring, ominous and metaphysical sounding STELLAR WIND, BOUNDLESS INFORMANT and EVENING EASEL programmes, to their UK counterpart GCHQ’s much less reverent BIG PIGGY, BAD WOLF, MUTANT BROTH and EGOTISTICAL GIRAFFE projects.

As has been reported over the past eight months, not much is left to the imagination for those commandeering our signals: electronic traffic is intercepted and hoovered up at source wherever possible, mobile phones are turned into bugging and tracking devices, and encryption technologies intended to make our communications more secure are weakened and cracked.

But Snowden’s leaked documents tell us about much more than hypertrophying and democratically unaccountable surveillance states invading and eroding the privacy of citizens. They force us to confront the fundamental disconnect between the experiences and mythologies we have of the communication technologies to which we are so collectively addicted, and the material, legal, economic and political realities which underpin them.

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan complained that American interpreters of Freud had missed the point of his shockingly radical decomposition of the human mind. By locating the unconscious inside the mind, like an iceberg partially submerged underwater, Lacan argued that they left the traditional conception of the conscious subject largely intact, albeit complemented by a dark, unknown portion which they considered it the job of psychoanalysis to uncover. On the contrary, Lacan argued that the unconscious is something that resides outside of us, in language, in our relationships with others, beyond our reach and beyond our ken.

The NSA documents leaked by Snowden highlight the dizzying experiential gulf between on the one hand the seamless, multi-coloured user interfaces with which we are so familiar, worlds of windows and folders, apps and icons, loved ones and deadlines and distractions; and on the other hand the monumental physical infrastructures of thousands of miles of intercontinental fibre optic cable, immense server farms, satellites and tunnels that enable us to connect to each other, the corporate giants that own and run them, and the geopolitical forces at play around them.

Decades of mythology, marketing and rhetoric around cyberspace and personal computing have led us to imagine and talk of our online lives as autonomous, deterritorialised public and private spaces in which we can conduct our business or leisure, unimpeded and free from watchful eyes. We know this not to be true: we know, at least in the abstract, that our personal information is very often coveted by tech corporations, sold to advertisers, and used to train the algorithms and improve the offerings of commercial services. Our every click, pause and keystroke is grist in Silicon Valley’s lucrative mill.

Snowden’s “PowerPoints, training slides, management reports, [and] diagrams of data-mining programs” give us a glimpse of a yet bigger picture: of how these transactions are bundled up, sold, stolen and secretly haggled over by governments and corporations at an enormous scale. In a project called UPSTREAM, the NSA intercepts an estimated 80 per cent of digital communications going in, out and around the US using an extensive network of oceanic cable taps in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It pays hundreds of millions a year for access to 81 per cent of international phone calls coming in and out of the US. It cajoles, compels and partners with major tech companies and infrastructure operators for access, front or back door, given or taken. GCHQ allegedly reports a 7,000 per cent increase in the amount of information they have access to in the past few years.

This is not just a simple case of state overreach. This is the surveillance industrial complex: the deep entanglement of entrenched public and private interests, woven together by contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars, secret deals, legal immunities, power games and revolving doors. Despite the loud protestations from Silicon Valley that “the balance … has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual”, this is just as much about the nefarious secret activities of unaccountable corporations as it is about the nefarious secret activities of unaccountable governments. As many have pointed out, the debate which Snowden started should not just be about curbing the excessive and unaccountable enthusiasms of the surveillance state but also access capitalism, corporate influence, undermining global institutions and trust and new forms of information consumerism.

While some have recently condemned the way in which the debate has been framed as a cyberlibertarian distraction, surely what is needed is a broadening and deepening of the debate, rather than ignoring it or moving on. Perhaps we should take it as an opportunity to discuss not only how to strike the right balance between security, privacy and liberty, but also about the composition, functioning and regulation of the invisible world that gives life to the light from our screens, and the effect that this world has on us and how we collectively think and operate.

The Snowden Files is a rich and readable account of one of the most significant leaks in history. It will be of particular interest to those keen to hear the inside story not of Snowden, but of the journalists and media organisations who worked with him and the issues and obstacles they faced in going to press. But it only touches on the broader significance of the revelations it describes, and offers little in the way of argument or analysis as to what might or should happen next. Those looking for fresh reflection or more imaginative political responses to the disturbing, although perhaps not altogether surprising, contents of Snowden’s leaks will have to wait.

About the author

Jonathan Gray is Director of Policy and Research at Open Knowledge, an award-winning civil society organisation dedicated to opening up public information, research and culture to benefit the lives of citizens around the world. He is also Researcher at the University of Amsterdam and the University of London. More about him can be found at jonathangray.org and he is on Twitter at @jwyg


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