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Surveillance 101

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Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

Sometimes, the world sends you back to school. These last months have offered us a crash course -- call it Surveillance 101 -- in how Washington, enveloped in a penumbra of extreme secrecy, went to work creating a global surveillance state on a scale almost beyond the imagination. It was certainly beyond the imaginations, not to say the technological capabilities, of the grim totalitarian states of the previous century, whose efforts were overwhelmingly focused on surveiling and locking down their own citizens, not those outside their borders.

In this schooling process, an unknown 29-year-old, hired by a private contractor to work for the National Security Agency (NSA), became a global figure and most recently a nominee for the European Parliament's prestigious Sakharov prize, that continent's leading human rights award -- and a rare European slap in the face to Washington. In the process, a journalist (Glenn Greenwald), a filmmaker (Laura Poitras), and the British Guardian, along with a host of bit players, created a global drama out of the documents Edward Snowden had liberated from the NSA's secret universe. From Brazil to India, Belgium to China, the man chased implacably across the globe by the Obama administration has opened a genuine debate on the far-reaching nature of surveillance in our world and seems to be changing the mood of the planet.

Every few days now, yet more stories wash out of the crevasses of that secret world. Last week, there was the dramatic tale of Lavabit, a small email encryption site; a court made documents on the case public and so ungagged the owner, who had closed his own business rather than turn over the encryption keys to the kingdom to the government. Then there was Tor, a "tool designed to protect online anonymity" that most people (myself included) will never have heard of, but that the NSA targeted and attacked. And don't forget that critique by the New York Times public editor: she took out after a front-page story in her own paper that accepted the unverified word of anonymous U.S. government sources on the significance of a piece the McClatchy news service had written about American "communications intercepts" of the online messages of al-Qaeda honchos.

And yet for all that we now know, and all that has been released but we have yet to absorb, it's clear that we're nowhere near fathoming the depths of the U.S. surveillance phenomenon. As Corpwatch's Pratap Chatterjee shows in "The Data Hackers," for example, we still know remarkably little about the private surveillance outfits that are providing the NSA and other government agencies with the ability to know us far too well.