The End of Unrecorded Life

“Dear … NSA … I mean … ‘Mom'”

At some point, we need to start asking ourselves: what happens if privacy is actually dead? 

The Guardian is running a major, major revelation today that the NSA program Dishfire is gathering up, analysing and storing hundreds of millions of SMSs of foreign nationals every single day. It is “an untargeted sweep”, collecting, in a chilling quote from the Snowden documents,  “pretty much everything it can”. The implications are staggering:

On average, each day the NSA was able to extract:

• More than 5 million missed-call alerts, for use in contact-chaining analysis (working out someone’s social network from who they contact and when)
• Details of 1.6 million border crossings a day, from network roaming alerts
• More than 110,000 names, from electronic business cards, which also included the ability to extract and save images.
• Over 800,000 financial transactions, either through text-to-text payments or linking credit cards to phone users

The agency was also able to extract geolocation data from more than 76,000 text messages a day, including from “requests by people for route info” and “setting up meetings”. Other travel information was obtained from itinerary texts sent by travel companies, even including cancellations and delays to travel plans.


At some point we need to start asking what happens if privacy as we know it actually ends. At this point Facebook and the NSA seem to be executing a kind of two-pronged attack on privacy. Their massive, warping influences have completely altered the substance of our notion of privacy and personal freedom. The NSA attacks our privacy from without, burrowing so far into the structure of the modern world that at this point, the walls we surround ourselves with are too porous to be of any use.

Meanwhile, from within, Facebook and the other systems of sharing have been gradually numbing the will to privacy. Many people quite simply do not have an understanding of what privacy is or why it would be valuable anymore. I’m reminded of a poem by Edwin Muir I read a long time ago:

Oh then our maze of tunnelled stone
Grew thin and treacherous as air.
The cause was lost without a groan,
The famous citadel overthrown,
And all its secret galleries bare.

How can this shameful tale be told?
I will maintain until my death
We could do nothing, being sold;
Our only enemy was gold,
And we had no arms to fight it with.
(Edwin Muir, “The Castle”)

If our walls are thin and treacherous as air, if we’ve already lost our cause, then maybe we need to start wondering whether privacy as a concept retains coherence enough to be a value we can build our societies around. On that question, I think I want to make a couple of observations.

That doesn't look like an evil villain lair at all.

NSA Headquarters, Fort Meade Maryland

The first, and the one which I’ve actually only just come to, is that the NSA should be completely shut down. I was actually hoping for something less than that. I was hoping we could keep a system of signals intelligence for actual counter-terrorism work. But that won’t do. The agency has a reach and an anti-democratic agenda too deep to be believed. It has to be not just defanged, but entirely put out of business.

Something else will need to take its place, probably, but at this point the NSA is our enemy. While I am certain that the people who work there are good and highly skilled people with the best intentions, doing a lot of good work, the system itself is completely rotten, and the culture of mass surveillance that has developed in the system is profoundly unhealthy. This is highly impractical and to the tens of thousands of men and women who I hope lose their jobs, it will be a disaster. But, however unrealistic a desire this is, I believe it needs to happen, and fast. Dismantling this source of power and threat is the smart thing to do, and in a sense the only realistic answer to the threat it poses to our privacy.

Second, we need to acknowledge this: that information is power. We’ve heard that phrase often, but what does it mean?

In a democracy, decision making is a distributed process. The spread and management of information in the system is the currency of political power through which decisions get made. Think for instance about the power of the media to frame, influence and create the way we speak about things. Think about the way information gets to voters through media campaigns. Awareness and control over the information in a democracy is a source of power. Not just in the sense of being capable of revealing our secrets for nefarious motives, but in more profound and subtle ways. Through the voice in the head of the dissenters saying that someone might be watching, and more generally by being a system which can utterly regulate and influence the information architecture of the world.

Said more bluntly: the NSA has absolutely unbelievable power. They might not use it, but the existence of such a centralised power outside popular control in a political system in which the people are supposed to rule is intolerable.

The idea itself, of an institution with this kind of informational power, is profoundly undemocratic. It means that the inner thoughts of individuals and the members of the people are at any time completely exposed to the eyes of the government. This makes sharing of power impossible. When the state has the power to know the contents of your mind — in practice, the situation of today — then that creates an imbalance between the state and the people. While the NSA and the executive branch are at this point doing the people’s will — more or less (… less) — the fact that the government could at any point effectively win a war on the people makes the current situation intolerable. We need to design not just for the government we have, but for a government much less sensitive to the will of the people, a government much less invested in the idea of democracy. Having an institution like the NSA is like having a gun lying around in an unlocked house.

The stuff of modern life.

Third, and most importantly, I believe we need to reflect and have a global conversation on the very idea of privacy and what it means.

We need to reclaim some ideas which seem to have gotten lost.

The first is that the self is predicated upon the ability to be shielded from view and have private spaces. This is where we find out how we differ from other people, this is how individuality arises.

The second is that being unmediated, unconnected and unrecorded is a possibility that should remain open for us. We should be able to, however briefly, remove ourselves from the mediasphere and touch the stuff of life itself. The quality of unmediated life is something that I should never want to lose. However, I find it hard to verbalise that quality. It is entirely experiential. Having lost it once, I fear it might never come back, and that we might not even know what we had lost.

Third, that it is in privacy that many of our most rational opinions are formed, in which we come to terms with who we are divorced from our group and our interests. It is in the private space that the possibility opens up for reflection on what is for the good of the whole of our species or our world. Without it, that kind of thinking becomes not impossible, but harder to do.

Fourth, and most importantly, that privacy is the foundation of freedom. If we are not capable of being uninterfered with, unwatched and un-thought of, independence in the strong sense becomes effectively impossible.

  1. In depth and powerful article! Your analysis is both factual and unfortunately true….creepy to say the least.

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