The NSA in 7 years: The view from dystopia
FROM: David Holmes, September 10, 2020 TO: David Holmes, September 10, 2013 SUBJECT: NSA
This is David. Yes, you. From the future. Hi. No, don't hit delete! This isn't some new low in PR pitchery or a practical joke. This is the real deal. Google figured out how to time-shift email BACKWARDS. Maybe to warn their executives about something. As you'll see, there are a lot of things they -- and you -- should've done differently.
It's 2013 for you, the era people referred to as the “Summer of Surveillance.” That was seven “Summers of Surveillance” ago. Actually it’s the Summer of Surveillance year-round now thanks to global climate change, but I'll save that for another email.
It’s not that the NSA’s desire to surveil its citizens has intensified over the past seven years. Nor are there fewer legal protections. Nor are tech companies any more likely to be in bed with the government. From a judicial and corporate standpoint, it was bad then, and it's bad now. But the problem today is that our everyday lives have become more "connected" than ever. I'm not talking about the social fabric here. I mean we're literally jacked into an omnipresent Internet 24/7. Most of us wear cameras on our faces. Our vital signs are under constant observation by invisible robot doctors. And all that data is stored by technology corporations with a direct line to the US government.
I guess we should've seen this coming. But the year is 2020, and you know what they say about hindsight.
So what's everyday life like for an average American like me (I mean, you. I mean, us.) seven years from now?
The first thing I do when I wake up is put in eye drops. Like the other 40 percent of Americans who once owned smartphones, I use Google contact lenses. (Apple's are too expensive and only work with other Apple products.) But damn, they make my eyes itch. At the edge of my peripheral vision I see an animated ad for the McDonald's below my crappy apartment, even though I hate McDonald's and only went there once to grab a soda. For all the advancements made in GPS-targeted advertising, brands still don't get it.
Of course it's not the brands I worry about. Now, whatever Google knows, the government knows. And Google knows a lot.
But hey, I'm not a terrorist or anything. Why should I care what the government knows? I'm not wanted for murder or for sending emails filled with suspicious keywords like "Allah" or "falafel." My current beef with the government is more commonplace: The IRS says I owe $20,000 in back taxes. Really, I just checked the wrong box on my tax return, and it'd be quite easy to clear up. But it's too late. No need for anything as old-fashioned or inefficient as a wage garnishment. That's so 20th century. The government has my encrypted bank account information, and the money's already gone. I can appeal, but appeals are only for those who can afford to monkey with the legal system.
Sure, I could make a fuss about it, maybe send a raven to the New York Times and hope it doesn't get intercepted by anti-raven quadcopters. But then I remember what I did last night. There was a party, I was a little tipsy, and someone offered me a drug. Not a virtual hit or one of those downloadable "tabs" that simply plays tricks on your mind, but a real, physical pill. And there's no doubt that my wearable medical diagnostic sensors, which measure my blood pressure, heart rate, radiation, and toxicity levels, detected it. I didn't want to install the full Google Body workup, I swear, but between the ultra-resistant germ strains floating around and the radiation fallout, of course (I'll explain later), it's important to stay healthy and monitor these things.
I probably won't get busted. The feds have bigger fish to fry. But if I cause trouble, they've got dirt on me. Even without the body sensors, there's a good chance I was caught on tape last night. Most of my friends and I, we rarely activate the video recorder on our Google lenses, but we aren't the norm. Because they're charged by our heartbeat, most people just leave the video recorder enabled all the time. After all, no one wants to miss a particularly gnarly-looking cat or an irresistibly Vine-able twerking situation. Those cats and twerks lead to retweets and favorites -- precious social currency.
You see, in 2014, when Klout was on the verge of bankruptcy, the government figured out that the best way to encourage Americans to continue sharing and recording everything they did was to incentivize its citizenry's Klout scores. So the feds took over Klout (ObamaKlout) and now, if you want to get in and out at the DMV or any other government office, you better have a 50 or higher.
Now, only an idiot would turn on their Google lenses when conducting activities that may run afoul of the government. The cameras are everywhere, both in the private and public sector, and nowadays -- unlike in your day -- are all interconnected. But it’s hard to know who’s watching. The beauty of it is that the government is already jacked into the system, so an informant doesn’t even need to make contact with authorities to inform them that an illegal activity took place.
You might be wondering how we got from a pretty bad surveillance state to the nightmare dystopia we live in today. It's a matter of some debate. After the initial revelations about widespread NSA surveillance, some argued for more and better encryption. That makes sense, except that it doesn’t matter how good our encryption locks are, quantum or otherwise, if technology companies are willing to give away the keys to the government.
Others argued this isn’t a technological problem, it's a legal problem. The Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had made it too easy for the NSA to coerce technology companies into playing ball. As Union Square Ventures partner Albert Wenger put it, “Our homes are safe from thieves and from government not because they couldn’t get in if they wanted to but because the law and its enforcement prevents them from doing so.”
But the kind of grassroots Internet activism that helped defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act never really took off. Go ahead, NSA, read my email. But you’ll have to pry my bootlegged copy of "Iron Man 3" from my cold, dead hands. Indeed, studies showed people feared hackers far more than they feared the government when it came to online privacy. Remember the outrage directed at Dropbox when a hack resulted in a few spam emails? Where was the outrage when Dropbox appeared on a list of potential PRISM partners?
Meanwhile, many techno-libertarians, the ones who would get so indignant when the government “intruded” on a taxi app’s right to bump up prices during a natural disaster, were conspicuously silent during the NSA debate. They were all too busy focusing on the big funding round raised by some cloud-based enterprise SaaS platform for dogs.
So the government continued to suck up emails, phone calls, and data in vast numbers, both domestically and abroad. As for the tech companies that didn’t play ball? The government had many ways of collecting digital fingerprints, like at the border. The NSA also took cues from GCHQ’s Humint Operations Team and began hiring spies to infiltrate noncompliant tech companies. These agents installed backdoors that allowed the NSA to dip behind the curtain of any corporation that refused to cooperate. Unfortunately these backdoors also make it possible for domestic and foreign hackers to manipulate the system. Hacks of major corporations have become so commonplace that we're now up to 10-factor authentication.
At the time, some argued that such indiscriminate collection of data would prove useless to the NSA. At a certain point, the more data you collect, the harder it is to gather meaningful insight on it.
But the NSA had been working for some time on a development that would make 2013’s “golden age of surveillance” look like the stone age: quantum machine learning. Way back in 2009, Google engineer Harmut Neven described how it worked:
Imagine the cabinet of drawers is a database containing the world's emails, phone calls, photos, and videos, and the "ball" is an email sent to a journalist by a whistleblower revealing wrongdoing perpetrated the government.
Assume I hide a ball in a cabinet with a million drawers. How many drawers do you have to open to find the ball? Sometimes you may get lucky and find the ball in the first few drawers, but at other times you have to inspect almost all of them. So on average it will take you 500,000 peeks to find the ball. Now a quantum computer can perform such a search looking only into 1,000 drawers.
Of course, no one sends emails like that anymore.
In fact, these days most of us revert to the safe world of virtual reality. Things aren't quite so Orwellian that the government can bust you for pretending to live a full and exciting life. Want to visit the Middle East? Or Russia? It's much less suspicious to go there in your mind. And honestly, virtual reality's become pretty realistic these days. Even the fake food is decent. After all, who dares to eat a real steak when the insurance companies have your cholesterol levels on lockdown.
In essence, virtual reality has become more real than reality. But living so much of our lives in virtual worlds makes us more detached. We still care about poverty and injustice, but we rarely see it in the flesh anymore. BuzzFeed Corp even created a Google lens filter that replaces homeless people on the street with dwarf kittens.
And yet terrorist attacks on the US still happen about as frequently as before, which is to say, not often. But even one is unacceptable. Like "PreCrime" in Phillip K. Dick's "The Minority Report," the point isn't to cut down on terrorist attacks, it's to eradicate them. Otherwise, why did we give up so much?
This evening, I arrive back at my apartment after spending my entire Saturday at the DMV. (The years have not been kind to our Klout score. Sorry.) The McDonald's ad flickers in my periphery, and my eyes ache. I take out my contacts, and the world seems to lose much of its luster. The bright, happy wallpaper I set up on my Google contact lenses is gone, revealing exposed pipes and paint peeling off the walls. The room is quiet, which is nice for a second, but I quickly become restless. I want to play a game or tweet about my day or gchat with my friends or watch Netflix or shop on Amazon. So I let out a deep breath, grab the eye drops, lubricate my pupils, and re-insert my contacts, the NSA's window into our world.
As Xeni Jardin tweeted on September 9, 2013, “The terror is not because the data-gathering itself is awful, though it is. It's the surprises. And it seems there are always new bad ones.”
Listen to her. She's right.Sincerely, The Future You
This is part of PandoDaily’s “Dispatches from the future” series where we share prognostications on what may lie ahead. We encourage readers to share their predictions in the comments or email the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org with ideas guest posts, which PandoDaily might publish.