Review: Trying to make sense of the world of ubiquitous surveillance

(Roy Scott / Getty Images/Ikon Images)

Airports are exemplars of our surveillance society. Here a raft of digital surveillance, targeting and sorting systems come together. And they start working well before you arrive for check-in, with the U.S. government comparing your name against watch lists as soon as you buy a ticket.

On a recent trip overseas, I brushed up against these overlapping systems of control. In the international airport in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I saw devices set up that automatically took temperature readings of arriving passengers (the Ebola scare was ongoing). When I returned from my trip and entered customs at John F. Kennedy International Airport, security officers divided us into lines based on national background. I swiped my passport at a kiosk, received some sort of receipt, and was made to wait again. Whatever this piece of paper meant, it was apparently better than one received by a young man next to me. His was marked with several Xs; it seemed no coincidence that, his skin being brown and mine white, he had been selected for further investigation, and I was allowed to move forward.

Within an hour or so, having also turned over my fingerprints, I was returned to the relative liberty of New York City, where Verizon sells records of my movements to marketers and the New York Police Department monitors teenagers on social media. The more I learn about our surveillance infrastructure, the more convinced I am that I never left the airport.


Two new books, Robert Scheer’s “They Know Everything About You” and Bruce Schneier’s “Data and Goliath,” try to make sense of this world of ubiquitous surveillance. Both are unequivocal in describing some looming dangers: the obliteration of privacy; new possibilities for discrimination as corporations track us relentlessly; mission creep as anti-terrorism tools are applied to nonviolent protesters and other innocents; and a dangerous commingling of Silicon Valley and the U.S. intelligence community, both of which rely on similar forms of bulk data collection.

Scheer acquits himself as a passionate advocate for privacy rights; you’d want him by your side at a protest. Schneier, on the other hand, is who you would ask to explain a piece of encryption software or — as he recently did — to confront the National Security Agency director with some pointed questions at a public forum.

A noted security researcher and author of many books on cryptography and digital security, Schneier’s been on this beat a long time, and “Data and Goliath” is a lucid, sophisticated overview of how corporate and governmental surveillance works, how it doesn’t, and what we can do about it. His book is finely constructed, free of cant, and practical in its conclusions — marks of an engineer. As one of a limited number of experts given access to the Edward Snowden documents, he is also in a special position to explain complicated, highly secret surveillance programs to the American public.

For Schneier, the problem begins with having computers practically everywhere now, from phones to car tires to thermostats, so almost everything we do produces data. It’s the exhaust our gadgets leave in our wake. But it’s the collection, parsing, management, and selling of this data that raises alarms. As storage plummets in cost — so much so that the NSA now records all phone calls made in at least two countries — we face a world in which nothing goes unrecorded and everything is stored forever.

The concerns extend from the mortal to the mundane. For example, we have the technology to monitor all drivers and issue automatic tickets as soon as they go over the speed limit or run a red light. Should we? Schneier quotes Harvard’s Yochai Benkler: “Imperfection is a core dimension of freedom.” We need room to transgress.

The editor in chief of Truthdig and a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Scheer worries that Americans once “fought and died for the right to” privacy but now we are “as a society voluntarily moving so much of that into digital spaces owned and managed by corporations we have no control over.” He correctly cites data-hungry advertisers as “Facebook’s true customers” and worries about the implications of companies like Google being cited by NSA leaders as part of the defense industrial base, which entitles them to secret briefings from intelligence officials.

In Scheer’s eyes, this is a dangerous new iteration of the military-industrial complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously and fruitlessly warned us about. Though the fears Scheer speaks of are real, he sometimes skates by on rhetoric rather than analysis; the word “totalitarian” and pieties about the Founding Fathers appear a bit too frequently. There are other small mistakes and infelicities that collectively undermine his arguments. For instance, NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake was charged under the Espionage Act but not “with spying.”

This may seem minor, but it points toward a lack of close reading that is much needed. For example, Scheer often rails against “data mining,” but he doesn’t distinguish between kinds of data mining. Take Palantir — the CIA-funded, Palo Alto-based corporation that provides analytic services for banks and intelligence agencies alike — which for Scheer is at the core of the new public-private surveillance partnership. Despite its “carefully honed image as a sort of countercultural spy outfit committed to privacy and individual rights,” Palantir has been caught offering to help Bank of America try to discredit the journalist Glenn Greenwald and WikiLeaks.

Yet the technology powering Palantir is similar to what PayPal uses to detect financial fraud (Palantir was founded by PayPal alumni). The same technology may be used to find PayPal scofflaws, track remittances to terrorists overseas, or pry into the private lives of journalists. Scheer’s book would have benefited if, like Schneier, he surveyed specific technologies and how they fit into the surveillance economy.

The challenge of confronting our surveillance state is not just in figuring out how to reform it — already a difficult task when fears of terrorism are constantly stoked and a range of public and private actors benefit greatly from our inexorably expanding national security apparatus. We must also learn to interpret it, to understand how, as Schneier writes, “the panopticon is an architecture of social control.” It’s true that power yields nothing without demand. But this is also a new kind of power — an algorithmic bureaucracy through which we all must pass. Without books like “Data and Goliath,” we might not know what to demand.

Silverman is the author of “Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection.”

They Know Everything About You
How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy

Robert Scheer
Nation Books: 272 pp., $26.99

Data and Goliath
The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World

Bruce Schneier
W.W. Norton: 400 pp., $27.95