However interesting a work it is, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s The New Digital Age is one of those books where if you come to it as a blank slate you’ll walk away from it with a very distorted chalk drawing of what the world actually looks like. Above all, you’ll walk away with the idea that intrusive and questionable surveillance was something those other guys did, the bad guys, not the American government, or US corporations, and certainly not Google where Schmidt sits as executive chairman . Much ink is spilt on explaining the egregious abuses of Internet freedom by the likes of countries like China and Iran, or what in the vast majority of cited cases, are abuses by non-Western companies, but when it comes to the US itself or any of its corporations engaging in similar practices the book is eerily silent.
I may not know what a mote is, but I do know I am supposed to pluck my own out of my eye first. Only then can I get seriously down to the business of pointing out the other guy’s mote, or even helping him yank it out.
The New Digital Age (I’ll call it the NDA from here on on to shorten things up), is full of the most reasonable and vanilla sort of advice on the need to balance our conflicting needs for security and privacy, but given its silence on the question of what the actual security/surveillance system in the US actually is, we’re left without the information needed to make such judgements. Let me put that silence in context.
The publication date for the NDA was April, 23 2013. The smoke screen of conspicuous- for- their- absence facts that are never discussed extends not only forward in time- something to be expected given the Edward Snowden revelations were one month out (May, 20 2013)- but, more disturbingly backward in time as well. That is, Schmidt and Cohen couldn’t really be expected, legally if not morally, to discuss the revelations Snowden would later bring to light. Still, they should be expected to have addressed serious claims about the relationship between American technology companies and the US security state which were already public knowledge.
There had been extensive reporting on the intersection of technology and US government spying since at least 2010. These weren’t stories by Montana survivalists or persons camped out at Area 51, but hard hitting journalists with decades covering national security; namely, the work of Dana Priest and the Washington Post. If my memory and the book’s index serves me, neither Priest nor the Post are mentioned in the NDA.
Over a year before NDA was published Wired’s James Bamford had written a stunning piece on the NSA’s construction of its huge data center in Bluffdale, Utah, the goal of which was to suck up and store indefinitely the electronic records of all of us- which is the main thing we are arguing about. The main debate is over whether the government has a right to force private companies to provide all the digital data on their customers which the government will then synthesize, organize and store. If you’re an American you’re lucky enough to have the government require a warrant to look at your records. (Although the court in change of this-the FISA court- is not really known for turning such requests down). If you’re unlucky enough to not be an American then the government can peruse your records whenever the hell it wants to- thank you very much.
The NSA gets two pages devoted to it in the NDA’s 257 pages both of which are about how open minded and clever the agency is for hiring pimply- faced hackers. Say, what?
The more I think about what had to be the deliberate silence that runs throughout the whole of the NDA the more infuriating it becomes, but at least now Google et al have gotten religion- or at least I hope. On December, 9 2013 Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and AOL sent an open letter to the White House urging new restrictions on the government’s ability to seize, use and store information gleaned from them. This is a hopeful sign, but I am not sure we be handing out Liberty Medals just yet.
For one, this move against the government was not inspired by civil libertarians or even robust reporting, but by threats to the very business model upon which the companies who signed the document are based. As The Economist puts its:
The entire business model of firms like Google, FaceBook and Twitter relies on harvesting intimate information provided by users and then selling that data on to advertisers.
It was private firms that persuaded people to give up lists of their friends, their most sensitive personal communications, and to constantly broadcast their location in real-time. If you had told even the noisiest spook in 1983, that within 30 years, much of the populace would be carrying around a tracking device that kept a permanent record of everywhere they had ever visited, he’d have thought you mad.”
Let’s say you’re completely comfortable with the US government keeping such records on you. Perhaps the majority of Americans are unconcerned about this and think it the price of safety. But I doubt Americans would feel as blaise if it was the Chinese or the Russians or heaven forbid the French or any other government whose apparatchiks could go through their online personal and financial records at will. Therein lies the threat to American companies whose ultimate aspirations are global. Companies that are seen, rightly or wrongly, as a tool of the US government will lose the trust not mainly of US citizens but of international customers. An ensuing race to the exits and nationalization of the Internet would most likely be driven not by Iranian Mullahs or a testosterone- charged Vladimir Putin paddling around in a submersible like a Bond villain, but by Western Europeans and other democratic societies who were already uncomfortable with the idea that corporations should be trusted by individuals who had made themselves as transparent as the Utah sky.
The Germans, to take one example, were already freaked out by Google Street View of all things and managed to have the company abandon that service there. Revulsion at the Snowden revelations is perhaps the one thing that unites the otherwise bickering nationalities of the EU. TED, an event that began as a Silicon Valley lovefest looked a lot different when it was held in Brussels in October, with Mikko Hypponen urging the secession of Europeans from the American Internet infrastructure and the creation of their own open-sourced platforms. It’s the fear of being thought of as downright Orwellian that seems most likely to have inspired Google’s move to abandon facial recognition on Google Glass.
With the Silicon Valley Letter we might think we’re in the home stretch of this struggle to re-establish the right to privacy, but the sad fact is this fight’s just beginning. As the Economist pointed out none of the giants that provide the hardware and “plumbing” for the Internet, such as Cisco, and AT&T signed the open letter, less afraid, it seems, of losing customers because these are national brick-and-mortar companies in a way the eight signatories of the open letter to the Obama Administration are not. For civil libertarians to win this fight Americans have to not only get those hardware companies on board, but compel the government to deconstruct a massive amount of spying infrastructure.
That is, we need to get the broader American public to care enough to exert sustained pressure on the government and some of the richest companies in the country to reverse course. Otherwise, the NSA facility at Bluffdale will continue sucking up its petabytes of overwhelmingly useless information like some obsessive Mormon genealogist until the mechanical levithan lurches to obsolescence or is felled by the sheppard’s stone of better encryption.
The NSA facility that stands today in the Utah desert may offer a treasure trove for the historian of the far future, a kind of massive junkyard of collective memory filled with all our sense and non-sense. If we don’t get our act straight, what it will also be is a historical monument to the failure of our two centuries and some old experiment with freedom.