The Surveillance Society (1) by Emilio Mordini

Original published HERE


Today (May 7) a US federal appeals court has ruled the phone metadata program of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) is illegal. Metadata is ancillary details generated by a piece of information.  Telephone metadata includes details  such as the length of a call, the phone number from which the call was made, the phone number called,  the telephone devices used, the location of the call, and so. Telephone metadata do not include voice recording and call contents. In 2014 Stanford computer scientist and lawyer, Jonathan Mayer, demonstrated that from phone metadata it is possible to draw very sensitive inferences, such as details about an individual’s familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual life.  Mayer demonstrated that metadata are highly meaningful even in a small population and over a short time period.

The NSA’s telephone metadata program, which started seven months before the September 11, 2001, collected metadata of hundreds of billions of telephone calls made along several years through the largest telephone carriers in the United States. In 2006, the existence of the NSA program was brought to the light by USA TODAY. However, it was only on June 5, 2013 that The Guardian published a top-secret document, which provided the conclusive evidence that the NSA collected phone metadata from hundreds of millions of phone subscribers.  Such a document was included in NSA classified files leaked by Edward Snowden.

On June 11, 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the NSA, challenging the legality and constitutionality of the phone metadata program. On Dec 16, 2013 the District Court for Southern District of New York ruled the phone metadata program was legal and does not violate the Fourth Amendment (on August 29, 2013, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had already stated that phone metadata: “is not protected by the Fourth Amendment, since the content of the calls is not accessed”). The ACLU appealed against this decision. Now the court of appeals has definitely ruled that phone metadata program is illegal, because it “exceeds the scope of what Congress has authorized and therefore violates § 215” of the Patriot Act.  Ruling the illegality of the program, the court avoided taking a stance about its constitutionality.  However, what is interesting is the court’s main argument, say, the Patriot Act § 215 provides the legal framework for investigation, but not for a generic threat assessment. Investigation – argues the court – is an activity that entails “both a reason to conduct the inquiry and an articulable connection between the particular inquiry being made and the information being sought. The telephone metadata program, by contrast, seeks to compile data in advance of the need to conduct any inquiry (or even to examine the data), and is based on no evidence of any current connection between the data being sought and any existing inquiry”. Why is this argument intriguing? Because it implies a counter-intuitive explanation of surveillance policies.

Why so many governments and rulers are passionate of surveillance technologies? Because they want to know everything about us, the standard account goes. No, the court tells us; they spy because they do not have any inquiry to do, any explanation to test, any investigation to carry out. Briefly, because they do not know,  are not able to know, and do not want to know. They do not understand the world and its conflicts, they do not have interpretation grids, they cannot figure out  the future. They are just “walking shadows, poor players that strut and fret their hour upon the stage”. They spy just for spying, because of their political emptiness, because of their intellectual laziness. Surveillance is for them the obscene surrogate for knowledge. Understanding is precluded by their shortsighted view; modern, sophisticated, technologies become a surrogate for intelligence.

Today, privacy advocates are celebrating, yet this sentence makes justice also of some of their paranoid fantasies. The surveillance society is not ruled by the big brother, rather by an idiot Peeping Tom.

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