Data Collection & The Digital Barn (NSA)


I’ve been sifting through and trying to assess ongoing arguments about data collection and surveillance at the NSA. Still ambivalent, I’m going to narrow my focus on particular statements as they appear stated in this or that argument as a best way to get a bearing about something I don’t understand near well enough.

For instance, Glenn Greenwald, as always indomitable, believes that the recently announced Obama Administration attempt to “reform” the NSA is just a malicious attempt to deceive the public. That might be part of the paranoia that some of his critics impute to Greenwald. You can read the whole piece here from the Guardian.

According to Greenwald, “Ultimately, the radical essence of the NSA – a system of suspicion-less spying aimed at hundreds of millions of people in the US and around the world – will fully endure even if all of Obama’s proposals are adopted. That’s because Obama never hid the real purpose of this process. It is, he and his officials repeatedly acknowledged, “to restore public confidence” in the NSA. In other words, the goal isn’t to truly reform the agency; it is deceive people into believing it has been so that they no longer fear it or are angry about it.”

Greenwald believes that he has cracked the code, that there is, in fact, a “radical essence” to this thing, and that he understands the “real purpose” of the data collection program. Not once does he mention national security. GG’s interest lies in “restoring privacy,” which may not be possible in the digital age, not in a complete way. That horse has already left the digital barn.

In contrast, Fred Kaplan, writing in Slate, thinks that data collection can be “controlled.” That might not be possible either, again, because of the digital barn.

What I still have not been able to decide is this. Is it a surveillance state, as people on the left and libertarian right call it, if the government collects data, but only actually looks at a very narrow range of it and only under court order? In this, I’m closer to Kaplan than to Greenwald.

On the one hand, I would like to think that power is always power and it depends upon the mechanisms that mediate it. On the other hand, it might be the case that there’s a tipping point, at which there is no way to safely handle the accretion of that much power that new technologies offer.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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