The government has been secretly gathering intelligence on us for years. What happens now?

 

If you wait long enough, everyone becomes the punchline in their own jokes. After years of snark and sarcasm about Big Brother watching us, it now appears that our one-liners were actually true.

This week, Glenn Greenwald first published a story in The Guardian about a massive data collection effort that saw the National Security Agency given access to call information for more than 10 million Verizon customers. A day later, The Washington Post ran a story informed by an NSA whistleblower who'd provided training documents for the larger program, called PRISM, which also included Google, Facebook, Apple, and Skype in the data collection efforts. "They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type," the Post's informant said.

The strangeness of the revelation is compounded by the oldness of the program, there is no single event to process but years of history, politics, and false assumptions that must be unwound and reprocessed in light of one distant fact: you were being watched. 

 

The strangeness of the revelation is compounded by the oldness of the program, there is no single event to process but years of history, politics, and false assumptions that must be unwound and reprocessed in light of one distant fact: you were being watched.

 

This process has led to a dual horror at the government's deceitfulness, and a bizarre sense of inconsequentialness to one's life. The government was watching you drunk dial your ex- over and over that one month, or searching through Google looking for ways to get rid of blackheads—which is a way of saying the government isn't actually coming for you, they have you already, and have had for a long time.

The reason so many struggle to understand why monitoring the petty data droppings of their lives—your checking account being overdrawn last month; sending a friend Kanye's new song from SNL, etc—is that their lives are already pacified. For most people, there is no red line across which they would not be led, exchanging moral accountability for the distracting comfort of lifestyle curation, choosing between kulat colors at Old Navy or micromanaging you fantasy league.

The surveillance structure does not want to criminalize you, only those who deviate from your lifestyle, people who would, for example, feel morally justified fighting a cop or not paying taxes. Government collection of data only entrenches the divide between those agitators and we, the pacified. It reminds us to stay as we are out of fear of reaping the whirlwind already inherited by those dim others whose lives simplify so easily into newspaper stories and debate questions.

In a twisted way, the surveillance state is reassuring, providing a quantified standard for maintaining one's status among the safe. You may be watched, but at least you know whose standards you're expected to live up to, and you will.

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