The Real Lesson of NSA: If Your Power Depends on Insiders vs. Outsiders, Time for Plan B 

And the real scandal is that NSA did not already know this

It seems that, depending on the constituency, the never-ending trickle of NSA revelations should be either seen as either boring and obvious—or be treated with shock and outrage. Spying on friendly governments and their citizens? Yawn, say some. Everyone does it. Many people around the world, though, are genuinely alarmed. Each new leak brings about new debate on whether the latest revelations are earth-shattering—or not.

A similar, sterile debate played out with Wikileaks. Did “we” learn anything new? Should “we” have known all this, all along?

The key buried point, however, is that — more than their content — these leaks are changing a fundamental shift in who “we” are.

First, this shift is not about whether governments spy on each other. It’s about shattering the rigid insider/outsider boundaries that statecraft has relied on for centuries. As I argued before, Wikileaks was certainly a big shot across this bow, but not the only one. This trend is everywhere.

Second, the most shocking revelation of all is that the NSA did not expect this leak to happen, either sooner or later. That’s a huge, telling blind spot about the current realities of governance.

To start with, it does not matter much whether knowledgeable people should have guessed the scale of NSA spying or not.* That is probably the least relevant question one can ask about all this. It relies on an old and outdated understanding of a world that is simply no more.

Repeating the mantra “this is nothing new, all governments spy” may make the mostly DC-insider chorus who cling to it ever more tightly with each new leak feel better, and entrench their self-image as insiders. There are certainly psychological and financial rewards to acting and feeling like insiders. But it does nothing to change the fact that this chorus has completely missed the point of the tectonic shifts affecting them, and all governance: They aren’t the only insiders anymore.

The “nothing new here” people aren’t fully correct, even in the technical details. It’s true: spying by governments, including on their own citizens and on other governments, be they enemies, allies or frenenemies, is not new. It’s even expected. However, the scale of the spying, enabled by the shift to digital infrastructure, is certainly novel. (Besides, spying, while known, is never tolerated and is always a scandal once caught—ask Jonathan Pollard).

Meanwhile, what’s most relevant is that millions of ordinary people are genuinely shocked to learn of the scale of government spying on their private communications. Their perception of invasion and inappropriateness, having suddenly been thrust into knowledge that only “insiders” previously had, is real, substantive and consequential.

Government surveillance is especially sensitive in Europe where memories of large-scale government spying by entities like the German Stasi are still fresh. But Americans, too, are taken aback. The United States constitution is notably a list of actions the government may not undertake except under strict circumstances. Secret, massive government databases of large swaths of private communications of Americans just don’t sit well with the American public, and probably never will.

Increased spying capacity may be one consequence of digitalization, but so is increased leaking of yesterday’s secrets. And governance in 21st century can no longer get by on expecting ordinary people around the world to have the same narrow view of what constitutes “proper” government actions as the small number of self-defined “insiders.”

Yet, by every indication, neither the NSA nor any other US or UK government actor seems to have realized that the same digital infrastructure, whose every weakness, nook, and cranny they actively exploited with much effort and energy, meant that such large-scale programs cannot be kept hidden from the public, at least not forever. At a minimum, the leak of a large stash of diplomatic cables to Wikileaks should have woken everyone up to the possibility that massive controversial secret programs can no longer be reliably kept secret, at least not forever.

The level of blindness to the inevitability of the leak is quite staggering, yet also a natural consequence of how bureaucracies and humans operate. In the case of the NSA, the obvious vulnerability was the more than 1,000 sysadmins who were required to run the messy, massive data collection effort. And as I’ve argued before, this isn’t a bug, it’s a feature of the velocity and scale of the data aggregation: trying to eat up the Internet needed these super-users who could roam around freely.

It’s become increasingly clear that these super-users were not well monitored, and the strategic blind spot that allows this seemingly naïve trust to is often present in such systems that rely on rigid separations between “insiders and outsiders” in governance. Once one of “us”, defined as a security clearance (held by hundreds of thousands of people so hardly selective) and a government job, you’re in. Everyone else is out.

We trust those who are in, we repel those who are out.

In other words, we are humans.

In sociology, this is referred to as the “in-group versus out-group” process and it’s one of the most powerful motivators of human behavior. We desperately want to fit in and belong with our “in-group” and react with hostility to socially-constructed “out-group.” The point isn’t whether this is good or bad: the point is this is core of human sociality. You can see this in teamwork and in athletic fandom, in racism, nationalism, and, of course, in bureaucracies and turf wars. In-group/out-group bonding is found everywhere and is a source of much that is good about human societies. It also fosters many things we deplore.

Over at Foreign Affairs, Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore, aptly outline the specific consequences of the “Age of Leaks” for US foreign policy. As they correctly point out, in a world more or less run by the US-led world order, US hypocrisy being revealed has specific consequences. That is certainly true.

But the point is also broader: it’s not just hypocrisy that is crumbling to the “Age of Leaks”, it’s the boundaries in norms, expectations and behaviors expected of those “in the know” and those who are supposed to be kept in the dark or, at least, in the gray—the outsiders. Those walls are crumbling, and will continue to do so.

Digital infrastructure empowers dissenting insiders to shine a light on all sorts of gray shadows—and there will always be dissenting insiders if an action is controversial, or if oversight is weak—and both were the case with the NSA’s massive surveillance activities.

By empowering dissenting insiders to break the insider/outsider boundary, digital tools help “collapse the context.” That’s the phrase scholars use to describe how digital infrastructure brings together people, information and ideas that used to survive through an ecology of separation.

Context collapse is why Facebook has become so stressful for teens after their parents signed up. Things that used to be separate are now on the same timeline. There’s Mom telling you to wear a warmer sweater on a comment thread about a party. There’s that uncle with a rant about Obama’s birth certificate.

Context collapse is everywhere. It’s not just teenagers on Facebook whose ordinary adolescent boundary-testing actions are viewed by finger-wagging adults; it’s not just a variety of institutions that have found their internal communications meant for friendly eyes are exposed to the world; it’s not just academics whose scholarly studies are being dug up by various constituencies as fodder for outrage. It’s everywhere.

The outsiders are peeking in and moving in, and they are here to stay.
If, as an institution, keeping your balance relies on outsiders staying outside while you talk in jargon and acronyms with your fellow insiders, it’s time to look for a safety net and a harness. A fall is coming, sooner or later. In this world, “this is what we have always done” is not going to cut it.

Time for Plan B.

* (For what it’s worth, this trailer has a clip of me making this very point about government surveillance in an interview years ago.)