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Coming to Grips With Our Not-So-New Surveillance State

BY Matt Stoller | Tuesday, March 18 2014

An FBI agent collects the agency's one-hundred-millionth fingerprint (National Archives and Records Admin.)

Since 2000, the American political system has been rocked by the dot.com crash, 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, the financial collapse, the housing crash, bailouts, and now, Edward Snowden’s revelations of vast government surveillance that served as an unknown institutional backdrop to much of it. Considering the last fourteen years, it’s time we begin trying to understand the relationship between people with lots of guns and people with lots of money.

When I think about surveillance in American culture, I usually start with a literary metaphor, the great American novel, The Great Gatsby. This is a story about Jay Gatsby, a man who grew up poor, made a fortune as a bootlegger, and then built up a myth about how he came from a wealthy family so as to attract the love of his life. It’s a story about identity, and reinvention, the mystery of who we really are.

If F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby today, it would be a very different book. Well, it wouldn’t be a book at all. It would be a one-page story about a guy who made up a bunch of lies about himself, and then someone ran a credit check.

To me, that’s what it means to live in a surveillance society. Basic parts of the American story, such as the right to be forgotten, to reinvent yourself -- these disappeared over the last sixty years, without a genuinely open debate, as institutions justified by the Cold War became institutions justified by the War on Terror.

What Snowden has given us is the opportunity to really have this debate, anew.

So I want to talk about four myths of the modern surveillance society in which we find ourselves. I define surveillance state as a state in which personal record-keeping is automated and controlled by well-capitalized politically connected institutions.

The Surveillance State Isn't New
The first myth is that this kind of state is new. Every few years, someone prominent makes a claim that we could fall into a dystopia. From Orwell’s 1984 to Snowden’s “turnkey totalitarianism,” they always say we are on the verge of becoming a different kind of society, one in which your every move is logged and tracked by powerful entities. But we’ve been living in it in one form or another for at least forty years.

At some point, we stopped being on the verge, and got there. And now we’re here. We are in a surveillance state, as per the various warnings we’ve received. But what we’ve found is that totalitarianism is not necessarily related to technological capacity. The most totalitarian state in the world today, that of North Korea, is the least advanced state when it comes to digital technology. And the Nazi regime, while it used a quite advanced information technology infrastructure for the time to track down, categorize, and kill Jews, was a totalitarian regime before it was a technologically sophisticated one.

Still, much of what we do is tracked and digitally archived, and it is being used to make decisions about our lives. In one way or another, this has been the case since at least 1973, when Visa computerized its operation, which was shortly followed by credit reporting agencies. So we should move beyond the question of whether we are building the tools for an authoritarian political state, and start talking about what kind of surveillance state we want. It’s a creepy question, but it’s one we’ve avoided talking about, until now.

What Bright Line?
The second myth is that there is a substantive difference between commercial surveillance and political, or national security surveillance. There isn’t, and there never has been. In fact, it’s pretty clear that building the technology and cultural institutions for a mass surveillance state -- data brokers, credit bureaus, credit card companies, the NSA, the FBI, and so forth -- has been a key part of our tacit unacknowledged national industrial policy since World War II.

I’ll just tell you a quick story about the politics of this state. In the 1960s, Congress actually had what was called a special subcommittee on invasion of privacy, chaired by a Kennedy ally and Congressman named Neil Gallagher. This subcommittee conducted the first hearing on credit reporting agencies. It also investigated early FBI efforts to computerize government data.

It turns out that the first national credit reporting agency, then known as the Retail Credit Corporation, today known as Equifax, was an ally of J. Edgar Hoover. It conducted the background checks for FBI agents. And it was J. Edgar Hoover or the Treasury department that blackmailed and destroyed the careers of several politicians interested in either commercial or political privacy problems. At one point, in 1971, Congress was on the verge of establishing a standing committee called the Select Committee on Privacy, Human Values, and Democratic Institutions, which Hoover sabotaged.

This was prescient -- in the 1970s, many of the laws involving both commercial and political surveillance were put in place. Our privacy laws regarding commercial surveillance and political surveillance are looser than they should be, because the national security apparatus protected the commercial sector from the most aggressive politicians who wanted to protect our privacy.

This alliance continues today, which is detailed in Robert O’Harrow’s wonderful book published in 2005, No Place to Hide . After 9/11, the government went on a buying spree, hiring data brokers like Axciom, Lexus-Nexis, Choicepoint, and so forth to fortify the the intelligence community.

The analogy to the Cold War is clear. After Pearl Harbor, the government repurposed Ford and GM into manufacturers of tanks. During the war, the government subsidized the expansion of our industrial base and created technology like radar, the computer, and atomic power. After 9/11, the government repurposed the data broker industry into parts of the government surveillance apparatus. It subsidized the data industry and helped accelerate the creation of the facial recognition, biometrics, and big data technologies.

And even if you dislike government surveillance, you’d have allies in government. The TOR browser, which the NSA despises, was developed with help from the Navy, and its ongoing development is funded by the State Department. The division between the commercial sector and the public sector might be a convenient rhetorical choice, but it is incoherent as an analytical framework through which to understand the politics of a surveillance society.

The Issue is Power
The third myth is that this is a battle between convenience and privacy. I reject this framework, not because I think we can have both but because it’s a sideshow to the real question of power. For example, industry is rife with what are known as “cooperative databases,” or blacklists. There’s one for insurance companies called CLUE (or ‘Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange’), so these companies can share details about whether you have ever made an insurance claim or whether your dog has been mean to the mailman. There’s another for retailers, who can list the names of their employees they suspect of shoplifting. Agribusiness wants data about the soil of farmers who use its products, so that company can use its monopoly to extract as much as possible from the farmers under its thumb.

An executive at Ford Motor recently said that his company knows when anyone speeds, because it has data from all GPS units installed in cars it sells. This opens up the possibility of just getting rid of speeding altogether, or the creation dynamic speed limits based on weather, and so forth. Questions of data privacy are super-creepy. But it’s not just about convenience, it’s a question of power, and who wields it.

And We Are Not Powerless
And the fourth myth is that we are powerless against this surveillance society. We are not. At all. If you look at how our surveillance society evolved, it’s clear that the public shapes it through a variety of mechanisms. In 1968, the Wall Street Journal was reporting on how insurance companies were discriminating against gay men and sexually active single women -- these companies would hire the Retail Credit Corporation to send detectives out and get credit reports on people that wanted insurance. Retail Credit would have their men ask neighbors if the man was a manly man, or if the woman slept around. Then these insurance companies would charge higher prices to these sub-classes, or what’s called 'discriminatory pricing."

Retail Credit also worked for corporations and the government, doing similar background checks at all levels. Millions of people were investigated to see if they were sexually deviant, and if they were, they were ripped off economically. With such pervasive surveillance, it’s not a surprise that the Stonewall Riots happened, that the gay rights and women’s rights and civil rights movement happened. And in the 1970s, Congress passed laws - weak laws, but laws nonetheless - prohibiting credit discrimination based on race, creed, gender or religion, often spearheaded by those who also cared about government overreach and questions of privacy. And credit, remember, was the first place where most people interact with algorithms and what we call big data.

The public didn’t fight back against surveillance by demanding less of it, the public fought back against surveillance by making the taboo a non-taboo. One democratic response to surveillance is to acknowledge taboos, and take away the power of the watchers to manipulate you.

We are not powerless, and we never have been.

Obviously I can only touch on a few aspects of what a surveillance society means. Surveillance cuts across national security, antitrust, finance, economics, pricing, information policy, and democratic values. It’s a big big thing. The people with the guns and the people with the money have a common interest in ensuring that they are in control of the surveillance apparatus, and that you have as little access to it as possible.

I mean, I’m sure the Department of Homeland Security would love to be able to read the email of everyone getting on a plane, to make sure that no one is thinking of bombing it. That might or might not be a legitimate usage of surveillance. But then, American Airlines would also like to be able to read your email, so that it can charge $10,000 for a flight if it knows you have to be in Los Angeles tomorrow for your mother’s funeral.

It’s time to start making this surveillance regime explicit, and purpose it for the real social problems we face, like disaster relief, climate change, resource depletion, and so forth. We can do remarkable things with the information we collect and analyze, and we can equally do terrible things with it. But that choice, as always, is up to us.

Matt Stoller is a former political consultant. He writes about history at mattstoller.tumblr.com. Follow him @matthewstoller.