If I had to pick a single moment when I grasped that we were on a new surveillance planet, it would have been the release of the stunning revelations of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor now in exile in Vladimir Putin’s Russia (and if there isn’t irony in that, please tell me what your definition of irony is). Those revelations seemed to fit all too well with the then-developing picture of twenty-first-century America. You know, the country with those black sites spread around the planet; whose top government officials had “enhanced interrogation techniques” (aka torture) demonstrated to them in the White House (and then authorized their use on actual human beings across that same planet); a country running a series of global kidnapping operations, placing its trust in secret courts, and thoroughly committed not just to the large-scale surveillance of populations, its own included, but to pursuing any whistleblower like Snowden who might want to tell us what was going on.
Back in 2013, when it came to Snowden, I began a piece I called “How to Be a Rogue Superpower” this way: “It’s hard even to know how to take it in. I mean, what’s really happening? An employee of a private contractor working for the National Security Agency makes off with unknown numbers of files about America’s developing global security state on a thumb drive and four laptop computers, and jumps the nearest plane to Hong Kong. His goal: to expose a vast surveillance structure built in the shadows in the post-9/11 years and significantly aimed at Americans. He leaks some of the documents to a columnist at the British Guardian and to the Washington Post. The response is unprecedented: an ‘international manhunt’ (or more politely but less accurately, ‘a diplomatic full court press’) conducted not by Interpol or the United Nations but by the planet’s sole superpower, the very government whose practices the leaker was so intent on exposing.”
In describing a government that was heading into “the shadows” in a way that would have left the founding fathers — those ancient checks-and-balances guys — horrified, I concluded: “It’s eerie that some aspects of the totalitarian governments that went down for the count in the twentieth century are now being recreated in those shadows. There, an increasingly ‘totalistic’ if not yet totalitarian beast, its hour come round at last, is slouching toward Washington to be born, while those who cared to shine a little light on the birth process are in jail or being hounded across this planet.”
And keep in mind that this was years before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office or any of us quite realized that what TomDispatch regular and private investigator Judith Coburn calls “surveillance capitalism,” as well as a planet of hackers, would join that government in creating an unprecedented surveillance culture, one that leaves all of us exposed. Honestly, I’d like to see the novel that George Orwell would write 34 years after 1984. In the meantime, I’ll settle for the vision of our world offered by one private investigator working in the San Francisco Bay area.