NSA to Americans: ‘All your data are belong to us!’

We will only understand the media when we appreciate the extent to which they are the creatures of state power.

An undated handout photo by the National Security Agency (NSA)
The NSA collects data on millions of Americans through access to Google, Facebook, Apple and Verizon [EPA]

A few days ago, the Guardian published details of the US National Security Administration’s PRISM programme. We now know that the NSA is able to access personal data stored by Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Paltalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple. Though these companies have done their best to downplay the significance of the story, the revelations should force us to think much more carefully about the political economy of the information economy – the role of states and private companies in creating each country’s shared agenda.

There is nothing new about states seeking to coordinate communication systems to further their interests. Although the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Center for Democracy described PRISM as “unprecedented militarisation of domestic communications infrastructure”, PRISM is entirely consistent with longstanding security doctrine in the US.

For instance, National Security Decision Directive Number 97 issued in 1983 states that: “The nation’s domestic and international telecommunications resources, including commercial, private and government-owned services and facilities, are essential elements in support of US national security policy and strategy”. Through NSDD 97, President Reagan directed, among other things, “that the nation’s telecommunications capabilities be developed or improved, and implementing procedures established, to provide for… support for the vital functions of worldwide intelligence collection and diplomacy”. TV and radio were part of how the US got what it wanted from the rest of the world.

Every country’s communications infrastructure is essential to the functioning of its state, and always has been. But PRISM is nevertheless highly significant. It shows us that the new digital technologies are not weakening states relative to global corporations. These companies might play all kinds of tricks to minimise their tax obligations. But when the NSA comes calling, they do what they are told. And the “big data” companies’ business models provide intelligence operations with far more detailed information about home and foreign populations than ever before. Companies such as Facebook and Google create “free” services that then cause us to invade our own privacy. The NSA then hoovers up the results. You have to admire the elegance.

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A ‘mighty Wurlitzer’

During the Cold War, the CIA and others paid close attention to both the print and broadcast media. The general field of knowledge was subject to all manner of manipulation. The spies recruited editors and publishers, subsidised translations and fact-finding trips, and built networks of influence in academia as well as journalism. They were able to arrange publicity and support for ideas and trends that they favoured, long before the phrase information dominance had been coined. According to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, the deputy director of the CIA in the 1950s and early 1960s, Frank Wisner, used to boast that he had created a “mighty Wurlitzer”, an instrument for reproducing propaganda themes across the world media.

To an extent we only dimly appreciate, post-war culture, from CBS nightly news to abstract expressionism, was the creation of a handful of poets and novelists manqué in the heart of the US secret state. The Cold War itself, seen in a certain light, looks like a kind of paranoid art, a brightly coloured and fast-moving thriller, under cover of which the state could conduct its real business. Similarly, the “War on Terror” takes on the outlines of a sequel – an uninspired return to a successful formula by the same production company, another milestone on the road to constitutional breakdown – The Die Harder Is Cast.

And as the computer replaces the television as the device on which most people turn to for information, the links between the state and the “big data” companies become more numerous and obvious. While the NSA wants the personal information harvested by Google and others, there is more to the state than the NSA and there is more to “worldwide intelligence collection and diplomacy” than data mining.

The current director of Google Ideas, and co-author with Eric Schmidt of The New Digital Age, Jared Cohen, is a former member of the state department’s policy planning staff. Meanwhile, Rob Painter, the “Senior Federal Manager” at Google was previously the director of technology assessment at In-Q-Tel. In-Q-Tel was created by the CIA and describes itself as a company that “identifies, adapts, and delivers innovative technology solutions to support the Central Intelligence Agency and the broader US intelligence community”. There is little doubt that the technology companies will operate within parameters set by “US national security policy and strategy”, as their predecessors in broadcast did.

And this brings us to the heart of the matter. During the controversy over the Leveson Inquiry in the UK, many American journalists were shocked that people in Britain were willing to countenance state regulation of the press. After all, the first amendment of the US constitution forbids Congress from passing laws “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. But debates about the media should take into account the relevant facts. PRISM reminds us that all functional states ensure that information systems serve their interests. Journalism, in the US as in Britain, is embedded in a telecommunications infrastructure over which the state maintains paramount control, in the name of national security.

No choice but cooperation

The digital age is only beginning and, as the science fiction writer Frank Herbert once observed, “a beginning is a very delicate time”. At the moment, the Obama administration is trying to make the digital media landscape safe for state power and its deep commitments. It is doing this through ever-closer coordination with the digital companies and through a campaign of intimidation against potential whistleblowers and troublesome reporters. It is surely obvious that Bradley Manning and Wikileaks are being targeted to discourage others.

In this moment of transition from broadcast to digital, the blunt instrument of vindictive prosecution has its place, along with technical wizardry and the state-of-the-art in soothing public relations. Google and the other technology companies want to assure us that they don’t operate as instruments of state policy. But they do, just as the broadcast networks do. They really have no choice but to cooperate, and to deny that they cooperate.

Media systems are the creatures of state power, whether they are formally private, like Google and the US broadcast networks, or formally public like the BBC in Britain.

During the Cold War, the state used its control over the media to manipulate the general field of knowledge in all kinds of more or less deniable ways. The spectre of terrorism is being used to reconstruct this unaccountable power in the new landscape of network communications. And this is about much more than privacy and surveillance. PRISM and similar programmes seek to shape the information technologies on which we will increasingly rely. The aim, as ever, is to set the limits of debate: establish who is moderate, who is extreme. We can expect strenuous efforts to frame the recent revelations in ways that conceal or misrepresent as much as possible about the relationship between states and their media.

We don’t have to play along. Media systems are the creatures of state power, whether they are formally private, such as Google and the US broadcast networks, or formally public like the BBC in Britain. They may be trustworthy in many respects, but they are also “essential elements” in support of national security policy and strategy. Given that this is so, we can discuss the media much more sensibly.

If the state supports and coordinates national systems of knowledge, then we can change the terms on which this support and coordination takes place. Washington currently spends a fortune in secret in order to reproduce a media system that consistently fails to connect with reality. This is money that would be better spent in daylight, by a citizenry wishing to inform itself. Washington has provided us with our governing narratives since 1945, through the Cold War, to the brief interval of The End of History, and now the ragged and sprawling “War on Terror” (aka Dangerous Times).

A media system over which we exercise substantial oversight and control would allow us to tell our own story, and to escape from the delirium that injustice needs if it is to survive.

You can call it media reform if you like, or democratisation of the state. One thing is for sure – you can’t have one without the other.

Dan Hind is an editor for openDemocracy and the Tax Justice Network. His books include The Return of the Public and Maximum Republic.