Why Nobody Cares About the Surveillance State

When you've been groped by the TSA, what's a little NSA spying?

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.

The truth is that whether it is in the service of emancipation or repression, most people who have access to the new Internet and other communications technologies can no longer really imagine living without them. They feel -- and in many important ways they are -- not just pleasurable but empowering. At the same time, except for some hackers and programmers, this pleasure and empowerment comes only at the discretion of governments and those corporations that control the biggest computers in a network. The pioneer of virtual-reality technology turned critic of digital utopianism, Jaron Lanier, put it well when he said that "every time you post a tweet attacking the 1 percent, you enrich some member of the 1 percent." For most people, privacy, too, has become the "shining artifact of the past" that Leonard Cohen once sang about. Indeed, anyone with a mobile phone understands that everything from their bank records to the products they buy online to the telephone numbers they dial and the addresses to which they send emails are recorded somewhere -- whether by a private business, their own employers, or, of course, the government.

Viewed from this perspective, is it the general public's comparative lack of indignation over the NSA surveillance scandal that is surprising, or is the real shocker that journalists, activists, and politicians feel so outraged? Yes, the U.S. government is indeed the Biggest Brother of them all, but most people go about their daily business being spied on and having their data mined by any number of small- and medium-sized brothers. Of course, someone who is outraged by the attempts to jail the leakers and prosecute and intimidate their journalist and activist colleagues would insist, and rightly so, that these sorts of things should not be permitted in a democracy. But the gap between the outrage of the chattering classes and the public's apathy -- or, more likely, resignation -- illuminates the essential difference between the elite's understanding of the world and everyone else's. To put it starkly, members of an elite tend to believe they can change things; most everyone else knows that, except in a few rare instances, they cannot. In an essential sense, the real question for members of the elite is not, why isn't the public outraged, but why are we?

It is important to be clear. Does the public take the revelations of the data-mining scandal as an affront to their liberty? Presumably many, perhaps even most, do. But life is so full of affronts about which one would be an utter fool to imagine that one can do anything. The automated recordings through which one so often has to pay one's bills, arrange an appointment, or try to get information (even whom to speak with to get that information) are an affront. The endless passwords, PINs, and the like are an affront (and are also, by definition, recorded on corporate databases). The ubiquitous CCTV cameras in city centers, a great many of which were installed well before the Sept. 11 attacks as crime-prevention and traffic-control measures, are an affront. And of course, all the petty and not so petty inconveniences and impositions of the post-9/11 world -- from the preposterous demand that one show ID when entering not just a government building but almost any office building in America, to the shameless slovenliness and rudeness of Transportation Security Administration employees at every U.S. airport -- are flagrant affronts. Even if the long war against the jihadis were to end tomorrow with total victory for the United States, can anyone seriously suggest that any of these measures would be lessened, let alone canceled?

The great myth of the past 25 years may be empowerment through technology. But the great truth of the past 25 years has been the rise of the surveillance state, which grows stronger every day -- both because of technology itself and because of the control that states and huge corporations have over the technology that people depend upon and love. On one level, everyone knows this, but whether it's because they believe themselves to be immune or because they simply never imagined that the surveillance state had become so all-encompassing, the elites seem to have been particularly surprised and therefore indignant over the scope of the NSA's spying, the ardor with which governments have defended these practices, and their foaming rage at having to defend them in public at all. "This is the way the world ends," T. S. Eliot famously wrote in his great poem The Hollow Men, "not with a bang but a whimper." Welcome to the post-democratic world. Oh, and by the way, you've been living in it for quite some time now.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images


Subcontinental Drift

A slowing economy, an exploding submarine, corruption scandals -- what's happened to India?

Barely a decade ago, the National Intelligence Council's Global Trends 2020 report highlighted the imminent rise of India, outlining its likely impact on a host of international regimes ranging from climate change to trade. More recently, during his maiden visit to the country in November 2010, President Obama stated that India was not merely a rising power but had actually risen. Indeed, in a subsequent statement that left many of his Indian interlocutors almost breathless, he even proffered qualified American support for India's entry as a permanent member of a reformed and expanded U.N. Security Council. Neither the NIC report nor President Obama's affirmation was out of step with conventional wisdom. For over a decade, India had been one of the four BRIC nations, destined to play a major role in the global economy.

Such characterizations now seem inaccurate, if not downright fatuous. In the last quarter, the Indian economy grew at a mere 4.5 percent (anemic by BRIC standards), and even the most optimistic of analysts do not believe that it will fare much better in the next. More recently, the Indian stock market plunged by 4 percent, falling to an 11-month low last week. Other economic indicators also offer cold comfort. Inflation is now hovering around 6 percent and is unlikely to abate.

Sadly, its economic woes are not the only challenge confronting India. In early August, one of the country's recently retrofitted, Soviet-era, Kilo-class submarines blew up and sank off a naval base in Mumbai, emphasizing India's military vulnerability at a time when China's navy is making steady inroads into the Indian Ocean. Days before the tragedy at the naval base, a carefully negotiated ceasefire along the Line of Control (the de facto international border) in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir was breached, resulting in the deaths of five Indian soldiers. Subsequent clashes suggest that the ceasefire may well be at an end.

Not only does India now face renewed external threats at sea and on land, but it is also witnessing a resurgence of ethnic and religious strife in critical parts of the country. In early August, riots swept through Kishtwar, a town in Jammu in the southern part of the contested state. Such communal violence apart, a Maoist insurgency has become endemic to significant parts of the country. Earlier this summer, notably in June and July, the insurgents struck at will against police and paramilitary posts in the states of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh.

Other troubles are also besieging the United Progressive Alliance coalition government, which is dominated by the Congress Party. Over the past several years, it has been buffeted with one corruption scandal after another, including one involving the sale of the 2G spectrum that may have cost the exchequer as much as $40 billion. Though charges were leveled against the then telecommunications minister, A. Raja, and other associates, he and many others are now out on bail. The telecom scandal, however, was not the last that plagued the regime. A government investigative body, the Comptroller and Accountant General of India, issued a report in March 2012 that questioned the dubious allocation of coal seams to a number of Indian companies at throwaway prices. Most recently, Robert Vadra, the estranged husband of Sonia Gandhi's daughter, Priyanka, faces accusations of impropriety in some highly lucrative land deals around New Delhi.

How did the country abruptly reach this very sorry pass? The answers are complex and are rooted both in India's political culture as well as its institutional structures. It needs to be recalled that, in the midst of an unprecedented financial crisis in 1991, India undertook a spate of economic reforms. These reforms quickly spurred growth, making India's the second-fastest growing economy in the world after China's.

Despite this spurt, significant segments of India's slothful bureaucratic apparatus, as well as an entire generation of politicians, remained either hostile or unconvinced of the utility and significance of the reforms. Furthermore, even as India liberalized its economy, it did not move with dispatch to create new institutions that could adequately monitor and set transparent rules for a more open market. The resistance to reforms from segments of India's bureaucracy, the failure to create new institutions, plus a new propensity for populist programs using new revenue sources have conspired to produce disastrous consequences for both the economy and the polity.

For the bureaucrats, the reforms signaled an end to what eminent Indian economist Raj Krishna had sardonically referred to as the "license-permit-quota raj" -- a labyrinthine set of regulations, rules, and restrictions over which they had exercised considerable discretion. With the advent of these reforms, they lost their ability to extract rents from hapless businessmen and industrialists. Not surprisingly, in an attempt to protect their entrenched interests, they sought to stall the implementation of new rules at every turn.

The post-reform generation of politicians was pleased with increased revenues that ensued from greater growth and productivity. However, they showed scant regard for fiscal rectitude as large segments of the population, which were hitherto economically disenfranchised, sought improved living standards in a booming economy. To ensure continued political support, the political class resorted to a host of populist schemes without the slightest regard for their financial soundness. These included the creation of guaranteed work schemes for individuals below the poverty line. In principle, such an assurance of work was a desirable public policy goal. However, without mechanisms in place to ensure that this system actually benefited the targeted population, its actual implementation became yet another source of corruption and a drain on the exchequer.

Despite the highly uneven impact of this work scheme, the present regime is now in the midst of debating new legislation that would assure access to a minimal caloric intake for every Indian citizen. The goal of this proposed legislation is laudable, but a number of prominent economists have warned that the government simply cannot afford it. Nevertheless, because of the program's political popularity, the regime remains committed to implementing it, even though the fiscal deficit already stands at nearly 5 percent of the country's gross domestic product. The exigencies of winning elections are now making populism run amok with disastrous economic consequences.

One other feature of the political landscape helps explain India's current straits. Even as the economy dramatically expanded between 1991 and the present day, only piecemeal efforts were made to develop new institutions, mechanisms, and procedures for dealing with the ramifications of its expansion. Consequently, well-connected businessmen could still find ways to corner critical resources as the state withdrew from or opened up new economic vistas. The growing need for campaign funding in a political arena increasingly dominated by electronic media also led politicians of all stripes to turn to commercial elites for money. Not surprisingly, this nexus resulted in endless questionable deals. When, thanks to India's watchdog institutions and a feisty press, at least some came to light -- for example, the decision to purchase Agusta helicopters from Italy was allegedly influenced by bribes -- political cynicism and distrust with the government grew. Meanwhile, the permissive environment that enabled high-level scandal had also encouraged corruption among petty officials who believed that only an unfortunate few would actually face punishment.

This virtual collapse of probity at practically every level of governance has afflicted other critical sectors. Owing to the long history of shady defense contracting, the current minister of defense, A.K. Antony, has actually instituted a series of internal checks to ensure that money does not routinely change hands as the country purchases huge amounts of military hardware from abroad. These regulations, however, have proven so draconian that they have now made it exceedingly difficult to execute a single defense contract. Despite the Indian air force's acute need for a strike fighter, final stage negotiations to acquire the French-built Rafale remain suspended in mid-air. Meanwhile, India's domestic defense industry, largely free from competition, is faced with vast cost overruns, interminable delays, and consequent technological obsolescence. A combination of these factors is leaving the country dangerously vulnerable to threats from China and even Pakistan.

Finally, thanks to a weak national government and a constitution that splits law enforcement responsibilities between federal and state authorities, the country has abjectly failed to develop a clear-cut strategy to combat terror in all its forms. Despite the creation of a new organization, the National Investigation Agency, in the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008, it remains understaffed, underequipped, and lacks clearly defined jurisdictional powers. Consequently, the country remains acutely vulnerable to yet another terrorist strike.

The fond hope of some Indian political commentators is that next year's national elections will end much of the policy paralysis that has currently gripped the nation. Yet such hopes may be little more than mere wistfulness. The problems that the country now confronts are the result of years, if not decades, of institutional slackness and neglect, dubious political choices, and flawed policies. Fixing them will require more than a changing of the guard.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images