Why Saying 'We Knew This' Or 'Everybody Spies' In Response To NSA Revelations Is Wrong
from the we-didn't-know,-and-it's-not-the-same dept
Zeynep Tufekci recently wrote a great piece over at Medium, in which she debunks these weak excuses, by pointing out that (1) while some people claim to have known, tons of people didn't -- and that's what's important and (2) the scale here is well beyond what was done in the past.
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 It relies on an old and outdated understanding of a world that is simply no more.As we discussed recently, the real "danger" of these leaks is that the US government can't get away with its hypocritical positions so easily any more, because the public (especially the non-US public) is demanding a response. And that makes a huge difference.
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.
Furthermore, she points out, the most amazing thing in all of this is that the NSA appears to have no plan at all in place for how to deal with this situation. It's as if they just assumed that everything they did would remain secret. Basically, Tufekci points out, the NSA relied on the idea that some "insiders" might know about this, but the great unwashed "outsiders" would never know.
But that's changed. In a big way -- and that matters, because the "context collapse" can have massive implications:
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.Meanwhile, there's a related article over at The Atlantic by James Fallows, in which he publishes an email from a Defense Department insider, which hopefully should put to rest the idea that everyone knew about this and that there's nothing "shocking" in the revelations. This is from an actual insider who argues the exact opposite, even as he supports many of the general actions:
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.
I obviously can't be quoted by name on this ... and indeed, since this email is being read (Hi guys!), I can probably get fired just for sending it, but let me just stress how shocking these NSA revelations are.But, that insider notes, the stunning thing about the NSA revelations aren't that they exceeded what most people believed the law is, but that it was an everyday thing rather than an "exceptional" case:
Look, I'm not a shrinking violet. I work for DoD. I support much of the war on terror. Some of these assholes out there just need killing. And gathering info on them that allows us to schwhack them is okay with me.
But there is law. And my view is that you have two choices. Either you change the law openly, publicly, or if that is impossible and you consider violating the law imperative, then you make a claim of "exceptional illegality."
But the thing about the NSA revelations is that this isn't exceptional illegality. It is routine, somehow justified by legal opinions written by John Yoo-style hacks.The situation is stunning in many ways. To claim that "there's nothing new" or that "everyone spies" is to miss almost everything that's important about these revelations and the impact they are already having.
And worse, it is so routine that 29 y/o contractors have access to it.