The recent discussions of US intelligence agencies intercepting people’s traffic have dominated headlines the world over. There was a fairly strong outcry in the US over “domestic spying”. The NSA (who are famously silent) proclaimed loudly that they rarely spy on US citizens without good cause (unless they were communicating with foreigners.)
And as foreigners, our collective hearts all broke a little.
Why did we twitch when President Obama told us that the NSA does not listen to calls of US citizens, and why did the NSA’s response cut so deeply or hurt so viscerally?
It hurt because although we hold passports from other countries, many years ago we also bought into the American dream.
Growing up on American TV we all adopted pieces of US culture. When we sided with “the West” watching 80’s Cold War movies, we were actually siding with USA, and when we watched war movies, we desperately wanted “our side” to win. We tear up when an American president gives a rousing movie-speech and we cheer hard when the SEALs parachute in to save the day. We may not know our own national anthems but all sing along to the Star Spangled Banner when it plays.
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This has traditionally worked out really well for the USA. We wear blue jeans, drink Coke & eat McDonald’s. We favour American companies (hands down) when we make purchases and when we build successful technology companies we try like hell to move them to Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley history is littered with the exploits of immigrants and first generation Americans. Like I said, we all bought into the dream.
But the recent leaks, and indeed the responses to them, wakes us with a jolt.
Every time we hear the “we never spy on US citizens” line, it’s another reminder that we are not equal (and that even if we became citizens, our parents, siblings and friends back home would still be fair game). Every CSPAN clip we see reminds us that some are more equal than others. It was always true, but we were blissfully ignorant. The leaks bring the issue into sharp relief and the national reaction to the leaks make it clear we don’t belong.
George Bush famously proclaimed: “You’re either with us, or against us”. He asked foreigners the world over to choose. The wholesale spying on “foreigners” says how we chose made little difference at all.
Haroon Meer is the founder of Thinkst, an Applied Research company with a deep focus on information security.
You can follow him on Twitter: @haroonmeer