On their face, Edward Snowden's revelations about the National Security Agency's secret mass electronic data surveillance system should have created a political firestorm for the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress. Not only have PRISM and related programs been used systematically to collect information about Americans with the cooperation of most major Internet and telephone companies, but when news of the program leaked, government officials first insisted that the programs had only tangential domestic implications because they targeted foreigners outside the United States -- reassurances that were quickly undone by further revelations. In other words, the government outright lied to the public and was caught in its own lies.
Despite anger at Snowden and apocalyptic claims by government officials that he had gravely undermined their ability to protect Americans from terrorist attacks, it turned out that the "secret" he revealed appeared to be one of the most broadly shared secrets in the world. The White House knew, members of the Senate and House intelligence committees knew, and major U.S. allies like Britain and Germany not only knew but in some cases collaborated in the effort. Companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft may not have known everything, but unquestionably they knew something. The only group that did not know about PRISM was the general public.
And yet, apart from some voices from the antiwar left and the libertarian right (on foreign policy there is considerable overlap between the Tea Party and the Occupy movement), the reaction from this deceived public for the most part has been strangely muted. It is not just the somewhat contradictory nature of the polls taken this summer, which have shown the public almost evenly split on whether the seemingly unlimited scope of these surveillance programs was doing more harm than good. It is akso that, unlike on issues such as immigration and abortion, much of the public outrage presupposed by news coverage of the scandal does not, in reality, seem to exist.
It is true that the revelations have caused at least some on the mainstream right, both in Congress and in conservative publications like National Review, to describe the NSA's activities as a fundamental attack on the rights of American citizens. The trend so worries more hawkish Republicans that one of their leaders, Rep. Peter King of New York, recently warned that "too many Republicans and conservatives have become Michael Moores." For their part, mainstream Democrats find themselves in the uncomfortable position of either defending what many of them view as indefensible or causing trouble for a beleaguered president who seems increasingly out of his depth on most questions of national security and foreign policy.
The press can certainly be depended on to pursue the story, not least because of a certain "guild" anger over the detention this week of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald's partner, David Miranda, by British police at London's Heathrow Airport, and the British government's decision to force the Guardian to destroy the disks it had containing Snowden's data -- in the paper's London office with two officials from CGHQ, the British equivalent of the NSA, looking on. But while the surveillance scandal has both engaged and enraged the elites, when all is said and done, the general public does not seem nearly as concerned.
The question, of course, is, why this is the case? In an age dominated by various kinds of techno-utopianism -- the conviction that networking technologies inherently are politically and socially emancipatory and that massive data collection will unleash both efficiency in business and innovation in science -- the idea that Big Data might be your enemy and not your friend is antithetical to everything we have been encouraged to believe. A soon-to-be-attained critical mass of algorithms and data has been portrayed as allowing individuals to customize the choices they make throughout their lives. Now, the datasets and algorithms that were supposed to set us free seem instead to have been turned against us. All together, techno-utopianism is looking a bit dented of late, particularly that variant of it that proclaimed social media to be at the heart of the revolutions of the Arab Spring. At the very least, the coup in Egypt seems to suggest that one certainly doesn't need Twitter to launch a counterrevolution. But while the ideology of technology as liberation may be bloodied, it is as yet unbowed.