So, it’s been a little over a year now since Edward Snowden leaked the NSA’s massive surveillance over many different forms of internet data. In that year, a whole disillusioning amount of nothing has happened in terms of reform, revolution, or anything to change the ubiquitous invasion of privacy. Many have written on the question of privacy rights in this year in a wide spectrum of political perspectives. Every possible allusion to Orwell’s 1984 has been made, slating the NSA as the ever-watching Big Brother overseeing all of us. Putting it briefly, I agree that the mass media surveillance is invasive and interferes with the very rights and liberties supposedly otherwise granted by the American Constitution, but I do also have some conflicting feelings about the role of privacy. However, I do not want to get mired into the discussion of privacy at this point.
Instead in this post, I want to focus instead on the question of security. As the National Security Agency is culling our data and metadata for its nominal purposes of security, I want to question the effectiveness of such measures. Putting aside the arguments of our rights, I want to ask what sort of help the NSA has even managed from hoarding data. My initial claim here is that the NSA has failed its own purposes here. If the purpose of culling citizen data is to protect the lives of citizens at large, then why have there been so many seemingly-preventable instances of domestic mass violence and terrorism in recent years? This morning’s events in Oregon mark the 74th school shooting since Sandy Hook. This includes the recent UCSB shooting rampage by Elliot Rodger, who had an extensive online record that the media was able to pour through within hours of his attack. We instantly knew his motives and the full extent of his misogyny through his infamous youtube manifesto and his MRA forum discussions. In fact, the standard fare now regarding any type of mass shooting is for the media to immediately share the killers’ online profiles with the public. The mainstream media often parades social media posts by killers that indicate that this violence was a long time coming. Either there’s clear signs of alienation, hatred, violent tendencies, an arsenal, or some other retrospectively-identifiable sign of intended harm. Perhaps it is easier for us to see the crystallization of violent tendencies with the hindsight bias of already knowing the extent of damage that a person has done. However I feel that with the ability to collect vast quantities of one’s online information, the rate of mass shootings in America should not be rising.
Yet, perhaps mass shootings enacted by individuals are too small of an operation for the NSA to feel that their resources are being put to good use. Perhaps instead they are focused on larger-scale organized attacks. But what about the Boston Marathon Bombings? It has been admitted that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was on an FBI terror watchlist up to 18 months before the bombing, and yet the NSA’s collection of online data did nothing to prevent the catastrophic event. Instead, law enforcement had to frantically piece together who the brothers were, causing the chase, the death of a police officer and suspect, and the lockdown of Watertown in order to catch the remaining bomber. The Marathon Bombing was a security failure in a supposed age of the panopticon. Despite being watched, the Tsarnaevs were able to act.
While several have touted out the foolish claims of a ‘false flag’ attack in many of these cases where it would otherwise seem preventable, I think the true horror of our panoptic government is this: in attempting to see everything, the NSA and other government agencies have lost their ability to focus on true threats. They can see the forest, but are amiss at making out individual trees. At this point in information technology, an individual leaves behind a massive trail of information, even if reduced solely to locational metadata. Multiply this immense amount of information by the population of the US, the number of cell phones/computers out there, etc, and one ends up with a massive amount of information that is unmotivated and unorganized. The NSA has glutted itself on our data, but I have yet to see it do anything productive with it. While recent films such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier have speculated that there will come a day when computers can determine an algorithm based on online data to determine who is a threat to the state, we do not have such a technology, nor do I feel convinced that such a technology is possible. Instead, the NSA sees all, but has no ability to process anything without guiding questions. Domestic evils, terrorism and shootings, persist despite the extensive invasions of privacy made in the name of security. Unlike Orwell’s Big Brother, we are not shown enemies of the state who are foiled by these intelligence measures. Unless there is a whole shadow world of clandestine threats and even-more clandestine preventions and salvations, there has been no public showcase of PRISM’s effectiveness for national security. We know their abilities, but not their focus in ‘security’.
While conspiracy theorists fear that the government is in control of our waking life through their panopticon, I fear instead that the government has built a panopticon without knowing what to do with it. Just because the government has this technological ability does not mean that it is competent in using it against or for its people.