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A new book on 'the most spectacular intelligence breach ever' falls short of interrogating what the surveillance industrial complex is doing to our societies, to our politics and to our minds. Today sees the launch of The Snowden Files, a “globe-trotting thriller” which tells, “for the first time in its entirety”, the story of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s disclosure of the scale and inner workings of a vast global surveillance system operated by the US, the UK and their allies. Written by The Guardian journalist Luke Harding, who worked on several of the Snowden stories, the book provides a synoptic overview of events from Snowden’s first contact with journalists in Hong Kong in June 2013 to his current exile in Russia – with some backstory about his teenage years near Baltimore and the months of disillusionment in Hawaii that led to the leak. Despite the subtitle “The Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man”, the main subject of the book is arguably not so much Snowden himself (whom the author has allegedly never met nor spoken to, and of whom we are left with a somewhat distant and nebulous impression) but rather the cache of over 50,000 documents that he assembled from top secret government computer networks while he was working as a system administrator under contract to the NSA from Booz Allen Hamilton. The Snowden Files traces the passage of these documents from NSA facilities in Hawaii to Hong Kong, Brazil, London and New York, as they are smuggled, copied, destroyed, redacted, reported on, locked down, fought over, and speculated about by hacks, spooks and tsars. No small part of the story is dedicated to recounting the part that Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and their colleagues at The Guardian, The New York Times, and ProPublica played in publishing their contents, much to the chagrin of various senior officials trying to hold them back. Harding’s book deftly recaps what these documents have told us about the various systems that constitute what he calls the “architecture of oppression” – from the NSA’s soaring, ominous and metaphysical sounding STELLAR WIND, BOUNDLESS INFORMANT and EVENING EASEL programmes, to their UK counterpart GCHQ’s much less reverent BIG PIGGY, BAD WOLF, MUTANT BROTH and EGOTISTICAL GIRAFFE projects. As has been reported over the past eight months, not much is left to the imagination for those commandeering our signals: electronic traffic is intercepted and hoovered up at source wherever possible, mobile phones are turned into bugging and tracking devices, and encryption technologies intended to make our communications more secure are weakened and cracked.
in our relationships with others. marketing and rhetoric around cyberspace and personal computing have led us to imagine and talk of our online lives as autonomous. On the contrary. immense server farms. the NSA intercepts an estimated 80 per cent of digital communications going in. compels and partners with major tech companies and infrastructure operators for access. sold to advertisers. and on the other hand the monumental physical infrastructures of thousands of miles of intercontinental fibre optic cable. The NSA documents leaked by Snowden highlight the dizzying experiential gulf between on the one hand the seamless. apps and icons. multi-coloured user interfaces with which we are so familiar. and the geopolitical forces at play around them. management reports. and used to train the algorithms and improve the offerings of commercial services. front or back door. that our personal information is very often coveted by tech corporations. the corporate giants that own and run them. It pays hundreds of millions a year for access to 81 per cent of international phone calls coming in and out of the US. beyond our reach and beyond our ken. pause and keystroke is grist in Silicon Valley’s lucrative mill. out and around the US using an extensive network of oceanic cable taps in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Snowden’s “PowerPoints. [and] diagrams of data-mining programs” give us a glimpse of a yet bigger picture: of how these transactions are bundled up. training slides. satellites and tunnels that enable us to connect to each other. Decades of mythology. deterritorialised public and private spaces in which we can conduct our business or leisure. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan complained that American interpreters of Freud had missed the point of his shockingly radical decomposition of the human mind. economic and political realities which underpin them. albeit complemented by a dark. worlds of windows and folders. loved ones and deadlines and distractions. Lacan argued that they left the traditional conception of the conscious subject largely intact. and the material. It cajoles. like an iceberg partially submerged underwater. in language. . In a project called UPSTREAM. Our every click. given or taken. sold. By locating the unconscious inside the mind.000 per cent increase in the amount of information they have access to in the past few years. at least in the abstract. Lacan argued that the unconscious is something that resides outside of us. We know this not to be true: we know. unimpeded and free from watchful eyes. stolen and secretly haggled over by governments and corporations at an enormous scale. They force us to confront the fundamental disconnect between the experiences and mythologies we have of the communication technologies to which we are so collectively addicted.But Snowden’s leaked documents tell us about much more than hypertrophying and democratically unaccountable surveillance states invading and eroding the privacy of citizens. legal. unknown portion which they considered it the job of psychoanalysis to uncover. GCHQ allegedly reports a 7.
functioning and regulation of the invisible world that gives life to the light from our screens. It will be of particular interest to those keen to hear the inside story not of Snowden.This is not just a simple case of state overreach. and offers little in the way of argument or analysis as to what might or should happen next. but also about the composition. Despite the loud protestations from Silicon Valley that “the balance … has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual”. Perhaps we should take it as an opportunity to discuss not only how to strike the right balance between security. While some have recently condemned the way in which the debate has been framed as a cyberlibertarian distraction. . privacy and liberty. This is the surveillance industrial complex: the deep entanglement of entrenched public and private interests. this is just as much about the nefarious secret activities of unaccountable corporations as it is about the nefarious secret activities of unaccountable governments. although perhaps not altogether surprising. legal immunities. the debate which Snowden started should not just be about curbing the excessive and unaccountable enthusiasms of the surveillance state but also access capitalism. contents of Snowden’s leaks will have to wait. As many have pointed out. undermining global institutions and trust and new forms of information consumerism. Those looking for fresh reflection or more imaginative political responses to the disturbing. But it only touches on the broader significance of the revelations it describes. corporate influence. woven together by contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. and the effect that this world has on us and how we collectively think and operate. secret deals. The Snowden Files is a rich and readable account of one of the most significant leaks in history. surely what is needed is a broadening and deepening of the debate. rather than ignoring it or moving on. power games and revolving doors. but of the journalists and media organisations who worked with him and the issues and obstacles they faced in going to press.