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.

 

In some ways, the PRISM program is itself a distraction, a figment of government process and compliance to legal protocols, while the NSA is free to operate on an even larger and almost entirely unchecked scale. As Greenwald reports, the agency operates a network of satellites that intercept calls and emails, which are sent to secret receiving stations around the world, with estimates of up to 20 different stations operating simultaneously, each one going through as many as a billion forms of digital correspondence a day. No one even knew the NSA existed for its first 20 years, and even now it refuses to say how many people work for it or how many people it considers targets. 

 

'They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,' the Washington Post's informant said.

 

It's safe to say, that there are no longer any specific targets used to justify this vast corpus of surveillance—there are no fugitives or foreign outlaws being hunted, no Public Enemy #1 to be found and brought to justice. Instead, the NSA functions as a maintenance organization, its data monitoring is not a hunt for an individual but deviations from the norm. They do not know who the enemy is, but they have a working definition of acceptable behavior against which we will define all future enemies.

Even living in comfortable obscurity, allowing our lives to be collected in data points contributes to the creation of a normative standard that the government has weaponized, using it as a basis to define as targets everyone not chattering away about Chipotle or obsessing over the departure of an ex.

The surveillance program, and our sarcastic indifference to it, is ultimately not a matter of self-endangerment, but rather an example of how powerfully selfish the human ego can be, trading data for comfort, while ignoring the fact that our data becomes part of an inverse identity that defines the kind of people we don't care about, people who are safe to eliminate. The joke's on us, but the gun's pointed at them.

Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.