Networked Culture and Surveillance 

How netizens are creatively fighting the NSA

The news has been awash with debates surrounding recent NSA leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden. Although much of the information Snowden released was largely known, if not officially acknowledged, the leak represents one of the latest battles over the internet and who controls it. The leaks from Snowden exposed beyond a doubt the existence of massive surveillance through the top secret NSA program PRISM, and the NSA’s tight relationship with Verizon. Ever since the leaks were released at the Guardian on June 6th, public officials and journalists alike have been frantically issuing and retracting responses, trying to get a grasp of what these mean, what is true, and what should be done.

The recent leaks offer us a perfect moment to examine how internet culture can react with and shape public opinion on civic issues. Millennials who were born with cellphones and computers are especially adamant to protect this networked and open space. The time frame of memes and internet culture is such that reactions can emerge fast enough to precede official statements from journalists and politicians. Of course many mindless reactionary memes and flame wars emerge, but within the fray also comes very unmediated, timely, intensely creative, and thoughtful responses. What role has internet culture played in the fight for it’s own freedom?

One of the first meme-ridden Twitter accounts I noticed after the Snowden leaks was @PRISM_NSA, posing as an official NSA account. Tweets like, “#FF EVERYONE ON THE INTERNET” have a dark humor — they aren’t true, but it’s no longer an impossibility. @PRISM_NSA also subjects political figures to harsh satire, especially Obama whose empty promises of greater transparency and openness in government now stings many previously proud supporters. Of course the ultimate irony is nobody except maybe the NSA and Twitter know the meme maker’s identity.

The Obama Is Checking Your Email Tumblr is hilarious only in the context of the leaks. Comprised of photographs of Obama looking at computers, this Tumblr turns the exceptionally horrifying yet abstract idea of Big Brother into the absurd prospect that Obama himself is the one watching our emails. As Obama gains more secret executive power, who is watching him? Obama is Checking Your Email playfully confronts us with the disturbing reality that, although Obama isn’t watching our emails, someone legally can.

Two fantastic twitter memes are #NSAKidsBooks and #NSAPickupLine. As the stories around the leaks took form, the conversation online was changing fast. #NSAKidsBooks and #NSAPickupLine emerged from the crowd and took a life of their own. Talking about mass surveillance was a great way to seem like a conspiracy nut, and now that it’s officially true, many have been dealing with that shock with humor and satire.

Using memes can be a welcoming invitation for further investigation, especially as secretive and uncomfortable as one of mass surveillance. If the conversation starts and ends only with the cryptic powerpoint slides and technical information about metadata, the audience and impact is greatly limited. Shrouded in secrecy, many are demanding the NSA reveal the extent of the surveillance, and reexamine the checks and balances which hold accountable. By creating spaces for humor and play, these memes invite a larger audience to easily join in a needed public dialogue.

Artistic and Satirical Responses

It’s not just memes that creatively shaping this discourse. A satirical post by sociology professor Kieran Healy examines the importance of metadata by showing how much one can glean from indirect data, it turns out to be quite a bit. Writing as a British analyst in 1772, Healy uncovers the importance of Paul Revere to the American revolutionary movement through simple metadata analysis. The powerful metaphor of oppressive spying on potential radicals hits all too close to home.

In part performance part protest, BuzzFeed staffers Troll the NSA by flooding their data-collecting doors. After writing and publishing a simple script incorporating as many NSA trigger words as possible, they invited all of their readers to collectively email or read the innocuous script on a phone last Wednesday at 7pm EST, potentially bombarding the NSA centers with thousands of threat signals. With 95,000 Facebook likes and close to 8,000 Tweets, I wonder just how many red flags this prank caused.

Similarly, two internet artists, Anthony Antonellis and Carlos Saez, created Trigger Treat in response to the NSA leaks. After identifying trigger words, Antonellis and Saez made the site so a viewer can share a randomly generated tweet of NSA flag words. As funny of a “F you” as this is, flooding the NSA with misinformation presents no real threat to their operations. Given the size and capacity of their Utah Data Center alone, which can store exabytes (1 exabyte = 1024 petabytes), of data, the accuracy of big data will be increasingly on their side the more they collect.

Wanting a more visceral connection to PRISM, artist and developer Justin Blinder created a Firefox plugin that plays Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” whenever visiting a site that is being monitored by the NSA. Blinder describes “Dark Side of the Prism” as “a soundtrack for our surveilled internet meanderings.” Many of us already knew we are being monitored online, but maybe a more subtle, auditory reminder will make our discomfort more palpable.

Why Surveillance Matters

To better understand the intense reactions to the recent leaks, it’s important to differentiate between tactical and strategic or what is more often called mass surveillance. Tactical is when there is a proven threat — a suspect which requires surveillance to fully prosecute under the rule of law, where a judge grants a court order to carry out the surveillance and the surveillance is tied directly to the subject and his/her criminal activity and no further. The United States passed the Wiretap Act in 1968 to have checks and balances for this type of surveillance, focusing its reach on the criminal activity and no further. More.

The second form of surveillance is strategic, and many see this type of surveillance as an affront to the first and fourth amendments to the constitution. This is surveillance operating under the premise that everyone who could possibly fall under purview of the surveilling equipment is a suspect until proven guilty. This is the type of surveillance Snowden has proven in the US and has long been true of the Chinese internet.

There are deeply rooted legal and historic rationale against strategic surveillance because much more than “evil-doers” are caught in the crosshatch. A great deal has been written on the chilling effect of journalism caused by the persecution and pressure on whistleblowers and investigative journalists, but free expression means much more than just leakers and journalists. Vibrant cultures and communities need and deserve a safe and free space to communicate and creatively explore, online or off.

Strategic surveillance inherently fosters actions based on personal biases and prejudices which is why tactical surveillance has the checks and balances that it does. Sweeping a population looking for wrongdoing allows the personal political or moral prejudices of the watcher or group to come to the fore. Technology researcher Danah Boyd wrote out against this strategic surveillance on her personal blog. When considering these dangers she writes “As a society, we generate suspicion of others who aren’t like us, particularly when we believe that we’re always under threat from some outside force. And so the more that we live in doubt of other people’s innocence, the more that we will self-segregate.” Strategic surveillance lets biases run unchecked.

Why Creative Engagements Matter

Snowden said, “I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.” Although the rise of mass communication and social media has potentially liberating potential, it’s a perfect tool for surveillance. In response to the news, Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei wrote that, “The internet and social media give us new possibilities of exploring ourselves. But we have never exposed ourselves in this way before, and it makes us vulnerable if anyone chooses to use it against us.”

Weiwei, speaking from vast experience with censorship and surveillance in China says, “When human beings are scared and feel everything is exposed to the government, we will censor ourselves from free thinking.” Happily, creatives were not afraid to join in the tough political and ethical discussion that emerged after the leaks. As trust in politics and journalism reaches new lows, we need artists to show us the truth as we search for meaning amongst the fog. By mocking the NSA and offering new perspectives, users are being stripped of the myopic message of fear many politicians are pushing.

These projects broaden and maintain public interest in a difficult discussion by inviting serious examination shrouded in humor and visuals. They also deepen our understanding of the issues by offering a new perspective, a new way to think about the issue. Our ultimate understanding, to have political impact, must be steeped in the facts. But a meme or artwork, though may not be entirely accurate, or the most directly informative, can offer a different perspective we so desperately need.