The Politics of Spying
One of the most controversial anti-terror measures the U.S. government has implemented in the last two decades involves surveillance technology. Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden disclosed the PRISM program’s existence in 2013, stirring a hornet’s nest in the process. To some, Snowden was a whistleblower; to others, he was Public Enemy #1. Because the government had classified the program, the technology had significant political ramifications.
Do Artifacts Have Politics?
Winner (1986) argued that specific technologies have political properties. He wrote, “What matters is not technology itself, but the social or economic system in which it is embedded” (p. 1). In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the social circumstances of the country had shifted, and Americans were concerned about further attacks. A month later, President George W. Bush signed into law the Patriot Act, which gave authorities sweeping authority to collect data, enable wiretaps, and conduct secret searches. In other words, lawmakers gave the government permission to spy on its citizens.
What was the PRISM program?
The Guardian, which won a Pulitzer Prize alongside The Washington Post for its coverage of the Snowden revelations, reported that the previously undisclosed program “allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats” (Greenwald & MacAskill, 2013, par. 2). This authority was in addition to requiring telecoms providers to secretly turn over telephone records on millions of U.S. customers.
The Privacy Debate
Snowden’s revelations brought to light just how far the government was willing to go by exposing the NSA’s collection of domestic phone data. Snowden’s opponents, including Presidents Bush and Obama, argued that he put the country's intelligence apparatus at risk by revealing the program. Some Americans were comfortable ceding their privacy rights to prevent an act of terrorism; others were alarmed at how the technology represented a massive government overreach.
Winner (1986) observed, “Attempts to justify strong authority on the basis of supposedly necessary conditions of technical practice have an ancient history” (p. 6). He was referring to how Plato suggested sailors must succumb to their captain’s orders. Similarly, proponents of the PRISM program believed Americans should have faith that their government was safeguarding their best interests.
Winner (1986) offered the atom bomb as an example of an inherently political artifact that was “controlled by a centralized, rigidly hierarchical chain of command closed to all influences” (p. 8). The same could be said of top-secret surveillance technology. Just as the use of domestic surveillance technology has empowered the state, the social system of the atom bomb was authoritarian.
‘The medium is the message’
McLuhan (1964) coined the phrase, "The medium is the message" (p. 22). Simply put, the way that we transmit information is more important than the information itself. Media innovations have changed the way we behave. Cell phone technology has allowed us to connect with friends and relatives all over the world. Humphreys (2016) noted that by 2014, 77% of people in the U.S. had a smartphone. That is a giant haystack of phone calls for the NSA to try to find a terrorist needle.
McLuhan might have had a prophetic view of technology's impact. In his follow-up work, The Medium is The Massage, he noted, “Electrical information devices for universal, tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance are causing a very serious dilemma between our claim to privacy and the community’s need to know” (p. 12). Incredibly, McLuhan wrote that sentence in 1967, long before Snowden’s revelations about domestic surveillance tactics surfaced. In this modern debate, government spy agencies believed they had the right to surveil people’s electrical information, but civil libertarians felt that doing so violated our right to privacy.
According to a Pew Research Center survey in 2014-15, most Americans believed it was acceptable to monitor some people, but not U.S. citizens (Geiger, 2018). Eighty-two percent of adults who Pew surveyed said it was okay for the government to monitor the communications of those suspected of being terrorists. However, 57% of Americans said it was unacceptable for the government to monitor the communications of U.S. citizens.
Snowden and Beyond
The U.S. government charged Edward Snowden with espionage in 2013, and he fled to Russia, where he remains under temporary asylum. Supporters have been campaigning for a pardon, but under President Trump that does not appear likely. In 2014, Mr. Trump tweeted, “Snowden is a spy who caused great damage to the U.S. A spy in the old days, when our country was respected and strong, would be executed.”
Like him or hate him, Snowden revealed a technology that impacted everyone in the country who uses a cell phone. While people do not always think of technological artifacts having political qualities, the surveillance program certainly divided the country once it came to light. While the privacy debate continues, the PRISM program does not. Earlier this month, a senior Republican aide said the controversial program had been quietly shut down.