Essays on Technology and Culture

Knowledge, Power, Corruption, and Lies

So, it’s come out that the security apparatus of the American government knows even more about us than it’s let on, to the utter lack of shock and surprise of everyone who’s been paying the slightest bit of attention. This lack of surprise is also, however, not surprising—as is the lack of sustained outrage from those outside the technology sphere. The technological sophistication that defines the NSA’s digital spying system is mind-blowing and the scope is incredible. Unless you’re an expert in technology and security, it’s hard to grasp the full extent of what’s going on. Most people are not experts in technology and security.

PRISM, X-Keyscore, and whatever else is up the sleeves of the NSA and similar organizations, are endemic of a real divide between the understanding of technology between the people who have the power to create and implement such programs, and the people being spied upon. They’re based on the implicit understanding that the average Internet user has no real understanding about how the Internet works, where their data goes, and who can access it. To be fair, the NSA isn’t the only one benefitting from this. Google tacitly acknowledges that it’s keeping an eye on what you use it for to better serve you advertisements, but they’re not going out of their way to call attention to it. Doing so would undermine their bottom line.

What Google does for their profits, however, is fundamentally less terrible than what the apparatuses of the United States government—and very likely other governments—are doing. The worst we can say about Google is they want to make money to pay their employees and make more stuff. The NSA is collecting data with a far more sinister purpose in mind. They’ll find a way to put what they’re collecting to use to accomplish something that, to the eyes of a technologically unsophisticated populace with an equally technologically unsophisticated government, allows them to get a bigger share of tax revenues, and justify their continued existence.

Actually, the NSA and Google aren’t so far removed, after all. The difference is that Google serves some utility to most of us, while the NSA does not. The NSA serves the political interests of those who want to look tough on terrorism, crime, and the moral panic of the day. Whichever of these the NSA can use their data to justify going against, that’s all it will take for the tide to swing in their direction. Google’s PR problems are harder to solve.

This is why it’s important that we find a way to educate people about not only the extent and power of the NSA’s online domestic spying program, but also about how this affects them and the technology they use on a daily basis. We need to know the tradeoffs. I’m reminded of a worry my father had about the E-Z Pass system used to automatically pay tolls on turnpikes and bridges. The logic worked like this: if they know when you go through each toll plaza, they know how fast you were going, and can send you a speeding ticket. This hasn’t happened, probably because it’s not quite that simple. My father was aware of the potential even in the early 2000s. (He’s since started using an E-Z Pass.)

People like my father are the exception rather than the rule, when it comes to thinking about technology’s effects on our lives. We see all the positive outcomes, because that’s all we hear from the commercials and mainstream news. Technology journalism sometimes covers potential downsides, but it’s just as likely to be retreads of corporate talking points that make an ostensibly objective product review read like advertising copy. Being “informed” and “knowledgeable” about technology is more about knowing how to read spec sheets and feature comparison checklists, rather than knowing how devices work and what we can do with them.

Knowledge is power. Right now, the people with the most knowledge of how these tools and services we use can be exploited are the ones exploiting them. They have the power to see who we are, what we’re doing, and send armed men to your door because of it. Though some have sniffed out potential BS around this story, the idea that a series of innocuous Google searches might set off alarms in the bowels of some computer system makes sense. Our credit and debit cards use a similar system to prevent fraud. Buy two tanks of gas and a pair of sneakers with your card and see what happens.

The only people with the knowledge of what constitutes a red flag, or how many red flags it takes to get a visit from armed men in black SUVs are the folks running the system. It’s to their benefit that we don’t know. We need to take that power out of their hands, and the only way to do it is by learning and understanding as much as we can about the tools and the technologies we use on a daily basis—and how they can be used against us. From there, we can decide how, when, and why to use them, and prevent future abuses.