This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
What if Edward Snowden was made to disappear? No, I'm not suggesting some future CIA rendition effort or a who-killed-Snowden conspiracy theory of a disappearance, but a more ominous kind.
What if everything a whistleblower had ever exposed could simply be made to go away? What if every National Security Agency (NSA) document Snowden released, every interview he gave, every documented trace of a national security state careening out of control could be made to disappear in real-time? What if the very posting of such revelations could be turned into a fruitless, record-less endeavor?
Am I suggesting the plot for a novel by some twenty-first century George Orwell? Hardly. As we edge toward a fully digital world, such things may soon be possible, not in science fiction but in our world—and at the push of a button. In fact, the earliest prototypes of a new kind of "disappearance" are already being tested. We are closer to a shocking, dystopian reality that might once have been the stuff of futuristic novels than we imagine. Welcome to the memory hole.
Even if some future government stepped over one of the last remaining red lines in our world and simply assassinated whistleblowers as they surfaced, others would always emerge. Back in 1948, in his eerie novel 1984, however, Orwell suggested a far more diabolical solution to the problem. He conjured up a technological device for the world of Big Brother that he called "the memory hole." In his dark future, armies of bureaucrats, working in what he sardonically dubbed the Ministry of Truth, spent their lives erasing or altering documents, newspapers, books, and the like in order to create an acceptable version of history. When a person fell out of favor, the Ministry of Truth sent him and all the documentation relating to him down the memory hole. Every story or report in which his life was in any way noted or recorded would be edited to eradicate all traces of him.
In Orwell's pre-digital world, the memory hole was a vacuum tube into which old documents were physically disappeared forever. Alterations to existing documents and the deep-sixing of others ensured that even the sudden switching of global enemies and alliances would never prove a problem for the guardians of Big Brother. In the world he imagined, thanks to those armies of bureaucrats, the present was what had always been—and there were those altered documents to prove it and nothing but faltering memories to say otherwise. Anyone who expressed doubts about the truth of the present would, under the rubric of "thoughtcrime," be marginalized or eliminated.
Government and Corporate Digital Censorship
Increasingly, most of us now get our news, books, music, TV, movies, and communications of every sort electronically. These days, Google earns more advertising revenue than all US print media combined. Even the venerable Newsweek no longer publishes a paper edition. And in that digital world, a certain kind of "simplification" is being explored. The Chinese, Iranians, and others are, for instance, already implementing web-filtering strategies to block access to sites and online material of which their governments don't approve. The US government similarly (if somewhat fruitlessly) blocks its employees from viewing Wikileaks and Edward Snowden material (as well as websites like TomDispatch) on their work computers—though not of course at home. Yet.
Great Britain, however, will soon take a significant step toward deciding what a private citizen can see on the web even while at home. Before the end of the year, almost all Internet users there will be "opted-in" to a system designed to filter out pornography. By default, the controls will also block access to "violent material," "extremist and terrorist related content," "anorexia and eating disorder websites," and "suicide related websites." In addition, the new settings will censor sites mentioning alcohol or smoking. The filter will also block "esoteric material," though a UK-based rights group says the government has yet to make clear what that category will include.
And government-sponsored forms of Internet censorship are being privatized. New, off-the-shelf commercial products guarantee that an organization does not need to be the NSA to block content. For example, the Internet security company Blue Coat is a domestic leader in the field and a major exporter of such technology. It can easily set up a system to monitor and filter all Internet usage, blocking web sites by their address, by keywords, or even by the content they contain. Among others, Blue Coat software is used by the US Army to control what its soldiers see while deployed abroad, and by the repressive governments in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Burma to block outside political ideas.
In a sense, Google Search already "disappears" material. Right now Google is the good guy vis-à-vis whistleblowers. A quick Google search (0.22 seconds) turns up more than 48 million hits on Edward Snowden, most of them referencing his leaked NSA documents. Some of the websites display the documents themselves, still labeled "Top Secret." Less than half a year ago, you had to be one of a very limited group in the government or contractually connected to it to see such things. Now, they are splayed across the web.
Google—and since Google is the planet's number one search engine, I'll use it here as a shorthand for every search engine, even those yet to be invented—is in this way amazing and looks like a massive machine for spreading, not suppressing, news. Put just about anything on the web and Google is likely to find it quickly and add it into search results worldwide, sometimes within seconds. Since most people rarely scroll past the first few search results displayed, however, being disappeared already has a new meaning online. It's no longer enough just to get Google to notice you. Getting it to place what you post high enough on its search results page to be noticed is what matters now. If your work is number 47,999,999 on the Snowden results, you're as good as dead, as good as disappeared. Think of that as a starting point for the more significant forms of disappearance that undoubtedly lie in our future.
Hiding something from users by reprogramming search engines is one dark step to come. Another is actually deleting content, a process as simple as transforming the computer coding behind the search process into something predatory. And if Google refuses to implement the change-over to "negative searches," the NSA, which already appears to be able to reach inside Google, can implant its own version of malicious code as it has already done in at least 50,000 instances.
But never mind the future: here's how a negative search strategy is already working, even if today its focus—largely on pedophiles—is easy enough to accept. Google recently introduced software that makes it harder for users to locate child abuse material. As company head Eric Schmidt put it, Google Search has been "fine-tuned" to clean up results for more than 100,000 terms used by pedophiles to look for child pornography. Now, for instance, when users type in queries that may be related to child sexual abuse, they will find no results that link to illegal content. Instead, Google will redirect them to help and counseling sites. "We will soon roll out these changes in more than 150 languages, so the impact will be truly global," Schmidt wrote.
While Google is redirecting searches for kiddie porn to counseling sites, the NSA has developed a similar ability. The agency already controls a set of servers codenamed Quantum that sit on the Internet's backbone. Their job is to redirect "targets" away from their intended destinations to websites of the NSA's choice. The idea is: you type in the website you want and end up somewhere less disturbing to the agency. While at present this technology may be aimed at sending would-be online jihadis to more moderate Islamic material, in the future it could, for instance, be repurposed to redirect people seeking news to an Al-Jazeera lookalike site with altered content that fits the government's version of events.