National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, now charged with violating the Espionage Act, has opened a Pandora's box of American global surveillance for the rest of us to be stunned by. Every day a new revelation, a new set of secrets or information, seems to pour out from somewhere -- without Hope, that last denizen of Pandora's famous container, yet in sight. No matter what any of us already knew (or guessed at or imagined), this rolling, roiling set of revelations, not likely to end soon, should expand our vision of the world we live in, especially the shadow world of those who covertly watch us.
Recent examples would include the Associated Press's reminder that the Prism program Snowden, Glenn Greenwald of the British Guardian, and Barton Gellman of the Washington Post brought to global attention is actually "a relatively small part of a much more expansive and intrusive eavesdropping effort" in which the NSA "snatches data as it passes through the fiber optic cables that make up the Internet's backbone. That program, which has been known for years, copies Internet traffic as it enters and leaves the United States, then routes it to the NSA for analysis." (British intelligence -- yet another revelation of the last week -- acts similarly and shares with the NSA what it finds off such fiber optic cables, including "recordings of phone calls, the content of email messages, entries on Facebook, and the history of any internet user's access to websites.")
You would have to add as well NSA expert and author James Bamford's recent exploration of how General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, brought war to the Internet, developing and launching the first cyberwar in history against Iran's nuclear program. The man known as "Alexander the Geek" has also, Bamford tells us, encouraged and gotten lavish funding for the creation of an ever more elaborate universe of cyberwarriors, including private contractors. (In the meantime, President Obama has secretly ordered his top intelligence officials and cyberwarriors to draw up a list of possible future cyber-targets.)
Last week at the New York Times, James Risen and Nick Wingfield slid through the new revolving door that's taking top Silicon Valley pros into the well-paying shadows of American surveillance in a Vulcan mind meld between the corporate giants of the Internet and U.S. intelligence. Meanwhile, FBI Director Robert Mueller, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, let us in on a future horror that turns out to be yesterday's nightmare: FBI drones are already in the air domestically, possibly over your hometown surveilling... well, maybe you. Mueller, however, couldn't have been more reassuring on the subject. The Bureau, he told the senators, uses drones "in a very, very minimal way and very seldom... we have very few." And p.s., the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives are both testing drones for similar use. But undoubtedly very minimally and very few, so don't fret.
And last but hardly least, thanks again to the Guardian, we know that warrants issued by a secret FISA court provide the NSA with a loophole into domestic surveillance large enough to drive an up-armored Humvee through. "Top secret documents submitted to the court that oversees surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies show the judges have signed off on broad orders which allow the NSA to make use of information "inadvertently' collected from domestic U.S. communications without a warrant." And what can't qualify as "inadvertent," after all? As Timothy Lee of the Washington Post points out, "These documents look more like legislation than search warrants. They define legal concepts, describe legal standards to be applied, and specify procedures for NSA officials to follow... But rather than being drafted, debated and enacted by Congress, the documents were drafted by Obama administration lawyers and reviewed by the FISC."
In other words, we are in a new world and as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit, author of the just-published memoir, The Faraway Nearby, writes, it's one in which big government's most oppressive powers, increasingly on display, are meshing wonderfully with big business's most oppressive intrusions on our lives. We await the Edward Snowden of Google. Tom
Welcome to the (Don't Be) Evil Empire
Google Eats the World
By Rebecca Solnit
Finally, journalists have started criticizing in earnest the leviathans of Silicon Valley, notably Google, now the world's third-largest company in market value. The new round of discussion began even before the revelations that the tech giants were routinely sharing our data with the National Security Agency, or maybe merging with it. Simultaneously another set of journalists, apparently unaware that the weather has changed, is still sneering at San Francisco, my hometown, for not lying down and loving Silicon Valley's looming presence.
The criticism of Silicon Valley is long overdue and some of the critiques are both thoughtful and scathing. The New Yorker, for example, has explored how start-ups are undermining the purpose of education at Stanford University, addressed the Valley's messianic delusions and political meddling, and considered Apple's massive tax avoidance.
The New York Times recently published an opinion piece that startled me, especially when I checked the byline. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the fugitive in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, focused on The New Digital Age, a book by top Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen that to him exemplifies the melding of the technology corporation and the state. It is, he claimed, a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism, from two of our leading "witch doctors who construct a new idiom for United States global power in the twenty-first century." He added, "This idiom reflects the ever closer union between the State Department and Silicon Valley."
What do the U.S. government and Silicon Valley already have in common? Above all, they want to remain opaque while making the rest of us entirely transparent through the capture of our data. What is arising is simply a new form of government, involving vast entities with the reach and power of government and little accountability to anyone.
Google, the company with the motto "Don't be evil," is rapidly becoming an empire. Not an empire of territory, as was Rome or the Soviet Union, but an empire controlling our access to data and our data itself. Antitrust lawsuits proliferating around the company demonstrate its quest for monopoly control over information in the information age. Its search engine has become indispensable for most of us, and as Google critic and media professor Siva Vaidhyanathan puts it in his 2012 book The Googlization of Everything, "[W]e now allow Google to determine what is important, relevant, and true on the Web and in the world. We trust and believe that Google acts in our best interest. But we have surrendered control over the values, methods, and processes that make sense of our information ecosystem." And that's just the search engine.
About three-quarters of a billion people use Gmail, which conveniently gives Google access to the content of their communications (scanned in such a way that they can target ads at you). Google tried and failed to claim proprietary control of digital versions of every book ever published; librarians and publishers fought back on that one. As the New York Times reported last fall, Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, summed the situation up this way: "Google continues to profit from its use of millions of copyright-protected books without regard to authors' rights, and our class-action lawsuit on behalf of U.S. authors continues."
The nonprofit Consumer Watchdog wrote to the attorney general on June 12th urging him "to block Google's just announced $1 billion acquisition of Waze, developers of a mobile mapping application, on antitrust grounds... Google already dominates the online mapping business with Google Maps. The Internet giant was able to muscle its way to dominance by unfairly favoring its own service ahead of such competitors as Mapquest in its online search results. Now with the proposed Waze acquisition, the Internet giant would remove the most viable competitor to Google Maps in the mobile space. Moreover it will allow Google access to even more data about online activity in a way that will increase its dominant position on the Internet."
The company seems to be cornering the online mapping business, seems in fact to be cornering so many things that eventually they may have us cornered.