In terms of policy, the most-remembered legacy of President Obama’s administration will likely be its escalation of the NSA’s warrantless spying on tens of millions of American citizens. It’s a substantial and unprecedented overreach of the corporate-state alliance that’s completely eroded privacy and introduced a whole new level of paranoia to the American consciousness. But maybe that’s the idea – Big Brother wants to scare you.
New revelations emerge almost daily from Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and plenty of others detailing the full extent of the government’s mass surveillance program. Just about every phone call, text message, email, Skype session and Google search for “pegging POV” is allegedly stored somewhere. The NSA even wants to peep at you through your webcam. Data is mined by private companies and shared amongst themselves and the state, then used by the companies for advertising and by the state to determine your threat level. It’s all based on your political beliefs, who you associate with, where you’re meeting and what media you consume – information that, for a lot of people, doesn’t take much digging to unearth.
This is all rightly very alarming. Real-world consequences have already been faced by activists and journalists. Snowden and Greenwald can’t be praised enough for their crusade against this enveloping tyranny, and it’s only a matter of time before planning a protest is just as illegal as participating in one. But a great deal of NSA coverage conjures an omnipotent Big Brother listening in on every word – an impression that benefits the state, which truthfully probably isn’t that good.
The American corporate-state alliance achieves its dominant influence over mankind by controlling the output of information. An avalanche of propaganda can turn Americans away from once-popular ideas like having a public option for healthcare and keeping guns away from the mentally ill. Smart phones, billboards, websites, TV, radio, magazines, newspapers, social media, and even video game consoles constantly deliver some corporate message, and seize our attention for most of the day.
Fear is the driving propaganda theme. We’re constantly told to fear something, from real global menaces like nuclear war and climate change to conjured boogeymen like communism and the “homosexual agenda.” Generally, serious concerns are downplayed while flimsy worries are afforded ample coverage and hotly debated. This requires no further demonstration than turning on your TV.
Constant reminders that we’re being monitored, surveyed and analyzed have added to the chorus of American fears. And the people in power like it that way. A program like this is more effective with public knowledge of its existence than without. If the population is sufficiently fearful of the NSA, it’ll censor itself, practically eliminating the need for the NSA in the first place. That was the key to Big Brother’s success in 1984 – the citizens never knew when they were being watched, so they acted as if they were at all times.
You might as well assume any information fed to Google, Facebook, Amazon, or any other big web company is pilfered freely by the NSA, and it’s only going to get worse. Same goes for cell phone communications, TV viewing habits, magazine subscriptions, everything. Big Brother is watching, but it’s an incredible amount of data, far too much for any team of NSA snoops to meaningfully examine.
If the average American spent just five minutes on the phone a day and sent just 100 words via text or email, that’d still be 26.3 million hours of conversation and 31.5 billion words to comb through daily. With a million employees working 24/7, they couldn’t come close to digesting it all. Even the algorithms and software used to highlight buzzwords like “Elvis” and the ever-deadly “artichoke” won’t help much.
This is why fear of the NSA is so important to the NSA. It’s not necessarily a fully realized Orwellian police state – but in order to get people to obey it properly, it helps if the people think it is. It’s also not hard to imagine that the NSA is not really all that effective at what it purports to be doing. Snowden himself is a perfect example of the NSA’s actual ineptitude. As his liaison, Greenwald, notes, the NSA couldn’t prevent Snowden from stealing and releasing 1.7 million sensitive files – how can they effectively police over 300 million Americans?
Much of the paranoia is justified. Farming, storing, and analyzing the communications of all Americans is an unconscionable invasion of privacy and a serious threat to freedom. There’s no way of knowing how many ways this evil will affect society in the long run. It hasn’t had much effect on combating terrorism, but has led to arrests – expect these to escalate and for the alleged crimes to become increasingly dubious, in accordance with ongoing trends. Another possibility is the state refining its propaganda model based on what it learns about Americans. It may shift from spying on longstanding enemies like Muslim scholars and liberals to demonizing new groups based on alleged email findings.
But if the NSA wants to see every picture of genitalia sent anonymously through Craigslist, let the perverts at it. It’s disgusting, but no reason to be cowered into surrendering the battles that really need to be won: overhauling the corporate power structure, preserving our environment and resources, and increasing the quality of life for all Americans. The more you fear Big Brother, the less Big Brother has to fear you – but the inverse is true, too, and that’s a far more important lesson to keep in mind as Americans learn to navigate the era of big surveillance.