When the NSA calls, head for your SUV

As big data helps intelligence services and law enforcement to strip naked our inner selves, we are trying to compensate by beefing up our physical defenses.

Spooks and feds seem to love SUVs. At least those that go about their business on TV or the big screen. Pick almost any recent crime series or spy thriller, and whenever the agents turn up more often then not you’ll see them alight from some big black vehicle, muscular hood, tinted windows and all.

I couldn’t help but notice the irony of federal agents riding in SUVs. While these vehicles surely have a lot going for them they strike me chiefly as a symbol for our obsession with physical safety in a world where almost everything in our minds and souls is laid bare by intelligence services and law enforcement. We trust in massive horse power and clever impact protection systems. We long for the embrace of the gated community. The perimeter of our physical existence is guarded by a growing arsenal of alarms, dogs and firearms. An expanding universe of drugs and detergents complements our last line of defence against the minutest of intruders — viruses and bacteria.

All the while the NSA is siphoning off our electronic communications. And with it the photos of our families, the messages trying to make up after a fight, the pause in a Skype call betraying the skipping heartbeat of someone we had just fallen in love with. And that’s not all. Think of our online search or purchase history, which doubles as a fingerprint of our identity to Google and Amazon marketers.

But the big data enabled lust for surveillance is already one step ahead. It has co-opted even our illusory safe heavens. Modern cars are bluetoothed, GPSed and otherwise electronically networked to death. The smart homes that keep us safe also keep the authorities informed. And while the first aid kit in your bathroom cabinet cannot pick up your mysteriously rising heart rate your Apple watch very much can.

The state and big business are prying open the innermost part of who we are. And there’s nothing we can do. Except to buy into the illusion that a big car, a guarded condo, or a sterile worktop makes us more safe.