The World Is Now an Airport

surveillance and social control

November 22, 2013

Everyone knows not to make bomb jokes at the airport. You just don’t do it. You don’t mention terrorism, or Yemen, or discuss unconventional political points of view. If you’re Muslim, you try to minimize anything about your appearance that might symbolize your faith or get you profiled. The point is to be inconspicuous. The less you say, and the more you look and act like every other business traveler, then the more likely it is that you will pass through security and customs unmolested by any special airport screening or extra questioning. We accept this as a temporary imposition, or we don’t think about it consciously, often because we are accustomed to doing some version of this filtering all the time. You know not to talk about gay marriage when your homophobic uncle is invited to Thanksgiving dinner. You know not to talk about Israel in front of your islamophobic boss. We shift contexts all the time, and adjust our behaviors to mirror the expectations of those contexts. Sometimes we are more free to bring up our own point of view and challenge the expectations of a context- maybe you can take on your homophobic uncle and get him to listen to you- but sometimes we have very little chance of challenging contextual expectations because we would face overwhelming force for doing so, such as in the airport.

What if the airport were everywhere? We now know that nearly everything we type into a web browser is recorded and backed up in data centers by the intelligence services of the world’s most industrialized nation states. This archive is immense and could be accessed at anytime in the future, whenever it is that you might come to the attention of someone with access, who cared to look, or is ordered to do so. It may not feel like we’re in an airport security line when we connect to the internet. Most people in “western liberal democracies” rarely encounter punishment for something they say online. This massive surveillance usually doesn’t even feel like a privacy violation in the way that we normally understand violation; we’re being watched by machines, mostly, not people. Machines don’t know the difference between your emails to your psychiatrist, or your intimate partner, or the statements you receive from your bank. It’s all just data. The creepy factor of being watched by someone isn’t there for most of us. Unless you are subject to intimate and targeted surveillance, the kind of close watching of which people like Laura Poitras, Jacob Appelbaum, and members of New York City’s Muslim community are made objects, then the mass surveillance of the net remains abstract.

When everything is known, anything that is not desired by the one who knows can be forbidden. When we speak, if we know that what we say could be monitored by a state, a company, or a person with a certain set of contextual expectations, and if failing to conform to those expectations could have consequences for us, then we will be less likely to speak freely. We will mirror the context, the unwritten rules of what is acceptable and what is forbidden. This is how censorship works. Censorship isn’t burning books or arresting journalists or blocking access to certain web pages. These are just symptoms and tools of censorship. Censorship is a system of coercive control where people police themselves. Journalists in countries with very weak free speech protections don’t need to be told that their article cannot be printed; everyone knows what you can and can’t write about, everyone knows that advocating for a controversial article will not be good for your career, in short, everyone knows what the rules are. The same goes for people in their everyday conversations. If you don’t know whether your colleague’s son will turn you in for criticizing the government, as is the case in many countries today, then you won’t criticize the government. The state can’t monitor everyone at once, but if you know that everything you say is recorded and could be monitored at any time in the future, then it doesn’t matter whether you are being actively watched. An NSA analyst today could go look up your record and watch your entire life’s worth of communications on the internet, back through time to your earliest connections. With access to all of the major fiber optic junctions of the internet, extensive logging, and powerful domain mapping capabilities, this kind of utterly massive global traffic analysis is feasible for adversaries such as NSA and GCHQ today. If you know that someone could be watching you, then that is enough to influence your behavior to reflect whatever hegemonic expectations are the norm.

All of this can get pretty abstract. I don’t like using historical examples from the USSR, or present day Russia or China, because it obscures the proximity and contemporary urgency of this problem. Instead, I’d like to tell a personal story about what happened to a friend of mine. She wasn’t an “activist” or a particularly political person. She was an artist I met through mutual friends at university. Her problems began when she became interested in an incident that had occurred on campus the previous spring. A fraternity member had driven his Cadillac Escalade into a tree with two freshman girls in his car. They were all extremely drunk, but only the driver was wearing his seat belt. One of the girls was ejected from the vehicle and died. Now, the university administration was intent on keeping this situation as low-profile as possible; the driver’s father was a wealthy and well connected alumnus, and both of the girls were determined to have had blood alcohol contents that were well into the black-out-drunk range. The girls were, of course, underage.

My friend was compelled by this story, and began to become interested in building a small memorial for the girl who had died. She proposed to the deans that she could put up a small sculpture, with the name of the dead student and a short explanation of what had happened, on the side of the road, by the main entrance to the college where the accident had happened. None of the deans were enthusiastic about her idea, but she was persistent. They said maybe. She contacted the victim’s family and began working with her adviser to plan the design of the sculpture. It was around this time, when she logged into her university Gmail account, that she discovered someone was reading her email. There they were, the new messages flowing into her inbox, except that they were marked as “read.” Someone had already been there. Someone was reading her mail.

This is when life began to become very stressful for my friend. Most of this happened while I was studying abroad, so I only heard the details from her and other people who were close to me when I got back. Apparently a small party she was holding for another art major’s work was raided by campus police. She was brought before a disciplinary board for serving alcohol to minors, since there had been several freshman art majors there, drinking wine. Her application for the following semester’s housing was mysteriously lost by Residential Life, and she had to scramble to find off-campus housing when she learned about this at the last minute. It’s impossible to prove that these events were directly related to her unwanted memorial for a dead girl, but that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? Her life became fearful, she no longer went to fraternity parties, and she no longer trusted the deans. Some of her friends concluded that she was crazy, and she nearly dropped out of school from the stress of what was happening to her. Even today, I can’t say for certain whether her run-in with the disciplinary board or Res Life’s mistake were related to the memorial project. When something like this happens to you, you feel crazy and alone, and you’re afraid to share these facts even with your closest friends, because you’re scared that they’ll think you’re crazy too. When you’re targeted by surveillance, you start to wonder whether certain things that happen to you are coincidences. Some of them may be, but the fact that you don’t know which are and which aren’t makes you feel powerless and fear that you’re losing your mind. This is exactly the point of surveillance. My friend dropped the sculpture project and never returned to it. The next semester, whoever was reading her emails stopped.

Thanks to Edward Snowden, we’ve now learned that up until the summer of 2013, NSA copied and archived most all Google emails, documents, photos, chats, and Google+ posts ever sent by anyone, around the world, including Americans. They did this by illegally tapping into the dedicated fiber optic cables that connect Google’s data centers world wide. Because these connections are off the public net, Google had assumed they were secure and did not encrypt connections between data centers. Even though NSA can request information from Google with a secret FISA court order, which Google is forbidden from telling the person subject to it about, they must have felt that this wasn’t enough, so they hacked Google’s internal system and were able to suck up most all of our communications, including archived messages, likely all the way back to when each of us opened our first Gmail accounts. Our words and pictures are with them now, sitting in a data center in Fort Meade, Maryland, being read and sorted by machines.

In the airport, security comes from two interlocking components: the ability to surveil and the capacity to punish. Our bags, clothes, and bodies are inspected. Our behavior, dress, and demeanor are monitored as well by individuals supposedly trained to sniff out fear. If anyone is suspected, they are taken aside for a more invasive inspection, are detained, or simply refused permission to fly. What the NSA is doing with dragnet surveillance is turning the whole world into an airport. We may not feel it, because disciplinary consequences aren't yet attached to this surveillance for most people. We can reasonably write an email on our Gmail account about smoking marijuana, or to a friend who does sex work, without fear. If we’re a Muslim student in our college’s Muslim student association, we may not be so lucky. What’s important to realize is that today, with the way the internet is built and used by most people, freedom is just a discretionary privilege granted to us by the world’s leading signals intelligence agencies. There is no reason that these huge data sets could not be shared with local law enforcement. Thanks to revelations by Edward Snowden and a lawsuit filed against the Department of Justice by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, we now know that the FBI has access to much of NSA’s material. In a FISA court document filed by former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and entitled “Memorandum of Law In Support Of Application For Certain Tangible Things For Investigations To Protect Against International Terrorism,” the DOJ brazenly argues that NSA can share all the call detail metadata (meaning the record of who calls whom for everyone in the U.S.) it collects with the FBI, just because it would be hard to only share some of it:

Although the call detail records [redacted] contain large volumes of metadata, the vast majority of which will not be terrorist related, the scope of the business records request presents no infirmity under title V [of the Patriot Act]. All of the business records to be collected here are relevant to FBI investigations into [redacted] because the NSA can effectively conduct metadata analysis only if it has the data in bulk. (TS//SI//NF)
DOJ argues that NSA can collect all Americans’ phone call records and share them with the FBI

We don’t know what the FBI does with this information, or what other access to NSA data they may have. We do know that the DEA has some access to NSA data, and uses it to target people in drug operations. Because the NSA data is not admissible in court, since the domestic surveillance of US citizens by the US military (of which NSA is a part) is unconstitutional, the standard practice is for the DEA to tell the local prosecutor’s office that the initial tip came from a confidential informant, rather than NSA. This is what is known as “parallel construction,” wherein law enforcement learns information illegally, and then lies about where the information came from once they’ve made an arrest and collected evidence. Something similar to this may be what happened to my friend the artist at university. After all, how did campus police know to come to her dorm and write her up for serving alcohol to first year students? The party was small and quiet, and it wasn’t advertised publicly. It may be that they knew because they were reading her emails. I can’t know that for certain, but it’s not an unreasonable possibility.

It’s also not unreasonable to think that police departments in major cities will be next in line to get some form of access to NSA data. In fact, only a few days ago, the Senate intelligence committee passed a bill proposed by Dianne Fienstein, the California Democrat who chairs that committee, that would authorize NSA to “search its troves of foreign phone and email communications for Americans’ information, and permit law enforcement agencies to search the vast databases as well.” After all, think how efficiently the police could fight terrorism- a term that seems to be increasingly broadly applied these days- or how well they could cut down on drug and human trafficking, if law enforcement knew everything? Imagine no more tragic car accidents, because everyone who speeds gets a ticket and a court summons in the mail, without even getting pulled over. It could be done very easily; most of us carry GPS enabled phones, it would just be a question of coding a few servers and connecting them to NSA’s databases. We now know, thanks to Edward Snowden and journalists with the Washington Post, that the NSA is tracking the location of nearly every cell phone in the world, gathering almost 5 billion cell location records a day and archiving that information in a database that stores the locations of hundreds of millions of devices. The New York Times reported, and the Director of National Intelligence obliquely confirmed that all Americans’ cell phone locations may have been tracked for as long as two years by NSA. With their access to the telcos- AT&T, Verizon, etc.- there is no technical limitation keeping them from doing so.

Feinstein and others have argued that these corrosive programs are necessary to prevent attacks, but seeing as how three of her colleagues on the Senate Intelligence committee, all of whom have the same clearance and access as Feinstein, have filed an amicus brief with the ACLU and the EFF stating that they have seen no evidence that dragnet surveillance has “provided any intelligence of value that could not have been gathered through less intrusive means,” one wonders just how valid the argument that total surveillance has prevented attacks may be. You and I don’t have access to the classified documents that President Obama, James Clapper, and General Keith Alexander assure us prove that dragnet surveillance has prevented attacks, so we’ll just have to take them at their rather dubious word.

By far the most concerning aspect of Feinstein’s push to give domestic law enforcement access to NSA data, however, is the fact that these massive data sets, in the hands of state and federal law enforcement, could be used to surgically target dissent with breathtaking efficiency. The situation my friend at university faced would become the situation all of us face, whether or not we are involved with political advocacy and civil disobedience. You wouldn't pursue work that might be perceived as controversial or get you investigated. You wouldn't make jokes using certain keywords that might be taken the wrong way; you’d be afraid that a SWAT team might mistakenly be dispatched to your door. We would all be living in a global airport. If this sounds far fetched to you, you should know that police and federal law enforcement are already using these tactics against political dissidents here in the United States. The so called “gang” and “anti-terrorism” units of big city police departments that liaison with DHS and FBI, and who, taken together, were responsible for the coordinated monitoring, infiltration, and repression of the occupy movement, may already have some forms of access to this NSA data.

The question I have to ask you all is this: do we want this? Is this the world we want to leave to kids who are growing up now- something that looks like a dystopic collaboration between Alan Moore and Phillip K. Dick? In the 1950s and 60s, the use of pesticides, genetically modified food, and the factory farming of meat took off. New technology made this possible and people said it was the future, that this was what progress looked like. Today, many people recognize that these practices are harmful, and actively work to build and support alternatives. Why don’t we have an ethical understanding of the technology we use? The consequences are no less global or dire. I would argue that we do have a choice, that progress is not linear or determined, but rather the product of collective choices. When we understand technology, we’re empowered to choose technologies that reflect our values, and reject those that do not. Our individual choices may not reverse the course of hegemonic institutions, whether they be Tyson Foods , Google, or the NSA, but they can create the spaces to imagine alternatives. I’m not naive enough to think that retreating to specialized encryption tools that few people know how to use will put a dent in the dragnet surveillance state, but we shouldn’t let the immensity of this problem make us feel powerless or afraid. You and I can support free software and service providers that respect privacy and support encryption. They need talented hackers and money to make tools that most people can use. If you’re reading this and you have access to classified networks, you could make an extraordinary difference in the world. You have the power to publish documents that could shatter the complicity of intelligence services and disrupt the legitimacy of dragnet surveillance in the public sphere. You might think that sounds crazy, but if you’re still reading this, then some part of you is probably not comfortable with everything that you see. It’s a cliche to say that courage is contagious, but it also just happens to be true. I’m not saying that our chances are great. To be frank, the future looks pretty bleak on a lot of fronts; from corporate influence on representative governance to ecological destruction; from mass incarceration to the genocide of indigenous people and the urban poor; from climate change driven super storms to the arbitrary deprivation of human life by flying robots; from growing income inequality and unemployment to the military occupation of our internet. Our time is not one we would choose, but don’t go quietly into that night. Life without hope and struggle is not worth living. Code, leak, and hack against the dying of the light.