President Barack Obama says he will work with Congress to review US surveillance programmes and the powers of the National Security Agency (NSA), following the whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s revelations of a programme of mass surveillance of electronic communications, including emails and Skype calls.
The idea that emails, phone calls and web searches are being collected and analysed by the world’s largest security apparatus shocked many. But given that the NSA is co-operating extensively with foreign countries, to what extent are all our lives monitored by national intelligence agencies? And can there ever really be any such thing as online privacy?
It turns out that the kind of online surveillance exposed by Snowden is nothing new. In The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State (Penguin, Dh68), the journalist Shane Harris charts the evolution of programmes such as PRISM. In the mid-1990s, says Harris, the US intelligence community realised that analogue tactics such as phone tapping were set to become obsolete. When September 11 brought national security to the top of the agenda, intelligence agencies seized the chance to expand their activities.
To really understand modern state surveillance you must understand its history. Turn to the seminal The Puzzle Palace: A Report on America’s Most Secret Agency by James Bamford (Penguin, Dh80), to do so. Thirty years before Snowden exposed PRISM, Bamford predicted: “Like an ever-widening sinkhole, NSA’s surveillance technology will continue to expand, quietly pulling in more and more communications and gradually eliminating more and more privacy.”
Perhaps the most famous depiction of state surveillance, though, comes from 1984 (Penguin, Dh46), George Orwell’s terrifying dystopia, in which citizens live under the constant watch of Big Brother. Orwell imagined screens in every house, monitoring the inhabitants. With the news that intelligence agencies can remotely activate our webcams and use them to spy on us, have we finally caught up to Orwell’s dark vision of inescapable state supervision?