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The NSA Knows Every Detail of Our Lives—So How Come It Misses the Big Picture?

Revelations on the extent of NSA spying should teach us not to conflate omniscience with omnipotence.

| Wed Nov. 13, 2013 3:41 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Given how similar they sound and how easy it is to imagine one leading to the other, confusing omniscience (having total knowledge) with omnipotence (having total power) is easy enough. It's a reasonable supposition that, before the Snowden revelations hit, America's spymasters had made just that mistake. If the drip-drip-drip of Snowden's mother of all leaks—which began in May and clearly won't stop for months to come—has taught us anything, however, it should be this: omniscience is not omnipotence. At least on the global political scene today, they may bear remarkably little relation to each other. In fact, at the moment Washington seems to be operating in a world in which the more you know about the secret lives of others, the less powerful you turn out to be.

Let's begin by positing this: There's never been anything quite like it. The slow-tease pulling back of the National Security Agency curtain to reveal the skeletal surveillance structure embedded in our planet (what cheekbones!) has been an epochal event. It's minimally the political spectacle of 2013, and maybe 2014, too. It's made a mockery of the 24/7 news cycle and the urge of the media to leave the last big deal for the next big deal as quickly as possible.

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It's visibly changed attitudes around the world toward the US— strikingly for the worse, even if this hasn't fully sunk in here yet. Domestically, the inability to put the issue to sleep or tuck it away somewhere or even outlast it has left the Obama administration, Congress, and the intelligence community increasingly at one another's throats. And somewhere in a system made for leaks, there are young techies inside a surveillance machine so viscerally appalling, so like the worst sci-fi scenarios they read while growing up, that—no matter the penalties—one of them, two of them, many of them are likely to become the next Edward Snowden(s).

So where to start, almost half a year into an unfolding crisis of surveillance that shows no signs of ending? If you think of this as a scorecard, then the place to begin is, of course, with the line-up, which means starting with omniscience. After all, that's the NSA's genuine success story—and what kid doesn't enjoy hearing about the (not so) little engine that could?

Omniscience

Conceptually speaking, we've never seen anything like the National Security Agency's urge to surveill, eavesdrop on, spy on, monitor, record, and save every communication of any sort on the planet—to keep track of humanity, all of humanity, from its major leaders to obscure figures in the backlands of the planet. And the fact is that, within the scope of what might be technologically feasible in our era, they seem not to have missed an opportunity.

The NSA, we now know, is everywhere, gobbling up emails, phone calls, texts, tweets, Facebook posts, credit card sales, communications and transactions of every conceivable sort. The NSA and British intelligence are feeding off the fiber optic cables that carry Internet and phone activity. The agency stores records ("metadata") of every phone call made in the United States. In various ways, legal and otherwise, its operatives long ago slipped through the conveniently ajar backdoors of media giants like Yahoo, Verizon, and Google—and also in conjunction with British intelligence they have been secretly collecting "records" from the "clouds" or private networks of Yahoo and Google to the tune of 181 million communications in a single month, or more than two billion a year.

Meanwhile, their privately hired corporate hackers have systems that, among other things, can slip inside your computer to count and see every keystroke you make. Thanks to that mobile phone of yours (even when off), those same hackers can also locate you just about anywhere on the planet. And that's just to begin to summarize what we know of their still developing global surveillance state.

In other words, there's my email and your phone metadata, and his tweets and her texts, and the swept up records of billions of cell phone calls and other communications by French and Nigerians, Italians and Pakistanis, Germans and Yemenis, Egyptians and Spaniards (thank you, Spanish intelligence, for lending the NSA such a hand!), and don't forget the Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesians, and Burmese, among others (thank you, Australian intelligence, for lending the NSA such a hand!), and it would be a reasonable bet to include just about any other nationality you care to mention. Then there are the NSA listening posts at all those US embassies and consulates around the world, and the reports on the way the NSA listened in on the U.N., bugged European Union offices "on both sides of the Atlantic," accessed computers inside the Indian embassy in Washington D.C. and that country's U.N. mission in New York, hacked into the computer network of and spied on Brazil's largest oil company, hacked into the Brazilian president's emails and the emails of two Mexican presidents, monitored the German Chancellor's mobile phone, not to speak of those of dozens, possibly hundreds, of other German leaders, monitored the phone calls of at least 35 global leaders, as well as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and—if you're keeping score—that's just a partial list of what we've learned so far about the NSA's surveillance programs, knowing that, given the Snowden documents still to come, there has to be so much more.

When it comes to the "success" part of the NSA story, you could also play a little numbers game: the NSA has at least 35,000 employees, possibly as many as 55,000, and an almost $11 billion budget. With up to 70% of that budget possibly going to private contractors, we are undoubtedly talking about tens of thousands more "employees" indirectly on the agency's payroll. The Associated Press estimates that there are 500,000 employees of private contractors "who have access to the government's most sensitive secrets." In Bluffdale, Utah, the NSA is spending $2 billion to build what may be one of the largest data-storage facilities on the planet (with its own bizarre fireworks), capable of storing almost inconceivable yottabytes of information. And keep in mind that since 9/11, according to the New York Times, the agency has also built or expanded major data-storage facilities in Georgia, Texas, Colorado, Hawaii, Alaska, and Washington State.

But success, too, can have its downside and there is a small catch when it comes to the NSA's global omniscience. For everything it can, at least theoretically, see, hear, and search, there's one obvious thing the agency's leaders and the rest of the intelligence community have proven remarkably un-omniscient about, one thing they clearly have been incapable of taking in—and that's the most essential aspect of the system they are building. Whatever they may have understood about the rest of us, they understood next to nothing about themselves or the real impact of what they were doing, which is why the revelations of Edward Snowden caught them so off-guard.

Along with the giant Internet corporations, they have been involved in a process aimed at taking away the very notion of a right to privacy in our world; yet they utterly failed to grasp the basic lesson they have taught the rest of us. If we live in an era of no privacy, there are no exemptions; if, that is, it's an age of no-privacy for us, then it's an age of no-privacy for them, too.

The word "conspiracy" is an interesting one in this context. It comes from the Latin conspirare for "breathe the same air." In order to do that, you need to be a small group in a small room. Make yourself the largest surveillance outfit on the planet, hire tens of thousands of private contractors—young computer geeks plunged into a situation that would have boggled the mind of George Orwell—and organize a system of storage and electronic retrieval that puts much at an insider's fingertips, and you've just kissed secrecy goodnight and put it to bed for the duration.

There was always going to be an Edward Snowden—or rather Edward Snowdens. And no matter what the NSA and the Obama administration do, no matter what they threaten, no matter how fiercely they attack whistleblowers, or who they put away for how long, there will be more. No matter the levels of classification and the desire to throw a penumbra of secrecy over government operations of all sorts, we will eventually know.

They have constructed a system potentially riddled with what, in the Cold War days, used to be called "moles." In this case, however, those "moles" won't be spying for a foreign power, but for us. There is no privacy left. That fact of life has been embedded, like so much institutional DNA, in the system they have so brilliantly constructed. They will see us, but in the end, we will see them, too.

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