The banality of surveillance

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on June 8, 2013

From The News Desk

Surely you’re not surprised that the National Security Agency would seek to data mine from nine giant American tech companies, looking to secure access to email, audio and video chats, photos, documents and studying connection logs.

AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and the rest denied that they are in cahoots with the NSA, claiming they turn over user data only when legally required to. Google’s Larry Page said the U.S. government does not have a backdoor into his company’s servers, while Apple and Facebook claimed they hadn’t even heard of the secret government project, called “PRISM.” Of course, in exquisite Joseph Heller, Catch-22 logic, if someone at these companies had received a request under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, he couldn’t tell anyone about it. In fact, he couldn’t even divulge the existence of the letter.

But here’s the bigger picture. We already live in a surveillance society. Not under the control of Big Brother, but rather a balkanized state characterized by a set of government- and business-run surveillance fiefdoms controlled by a growing number of little brothers.  You, me, and all of us are under almost constant surveillance whenever we venture outside our homes. Inside them we are tracked when we go online or get on the phone. And the more connected we are, the more electronic data we produce, and that means that governments, law enforcement and businesses will do whatever they can to gain access to it.

I’m not the paranoid type. I don't watch the NBA playoffs on TV, see a coach addressing his players during a time out, and think they’re talking about me. But I am well aware of the banality of surveillance. And it’s not necessarily undertaken in cloak-and-dagger-like fashion. It’s right out there in the open.

Let’s start with the cameras. Every day, you may be captured on cameras hundreds of times. There are cameras at traffic lights, in parks, at airports, on the tops of buildings, on subway platforms, in stores, banks and ATMs. The Boston bombers were identified from surveillance footage. 9/11 hijackers Mohammed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari were caught on camera at an airport in Portland, Maine. Google ‘surveillance cameras caught on’ and you’ll get a panoply of results showing how cameras caught a cop having sex on the hood of his car, car accidents, a fox that ran wild in a museum. Dashboard cameras caught February’s meteor that hit Russia.

It's not just cameras stalking your every move. If you are a typical New Yorker, your activities are captured in all sorts of ways. Walk down the street and yes there are the cameras – some placed there by police, most others by businesses. Pay for groceries with a credit or debit card and your purchases are logged by the credit card company. To get on the subway you use a Metrocard (most likely paid for by credit card), which stores a record of your journeys, and on the platform more cameras. Back at street level and get on your iPhone to text a friend and your service provider can triangulate your location based on which cell towers you use and also store your conversations. Make a call and, as we know, the NSA may be listening. Get in your car and your GPS can tell you where to go and where you have been or use OnStar and it knows where your car is. Get to the office and go online, and the FBI could be intercepting your emails and monitoring your web surfing or requiring internet service providers to do it.

The challenge isn’t so much collecting data. It’s what to do with all the data being collected. If you printed out transcripts of all the phone conversations Americans engage in over the course of a year you'd have a stack of papers that would climb to the moon and back. And it’s not only this mass of data, it’s where it’s stored. Much of it sits behind walled partitions. The camera at your ATM doesn’t share images with the convenience store, and it doesn’t automatically pass it on to the police to combine with traffic cameras. The same goes for ATM withdrawals, credit card transactions, and Metrocards.

One day, however, our spy agencies may figure out a way to seamlessly link all this data. Until then, agencies like the NSA will rely on the kindness (or cooperation) of America’s companies to keep tabs on suspects.

As for Americans, we accept all this by pretending it isn’t really happening. As long as we can’t see or feel the surveillance – and no one blackmails us – we put up with it if it makes our lives a little more convenient.