Surveillance Never Sleeps | 3. Surveillance Never Sleeps

Blueshift Series

Surveillance Never Sleeps

Arthur and Marilouise Kroker


3

Surveillance Never Sleeps

Surveillance never sleeps because it lives off data trackers designed to never forget. Algorithms have become cabinets of digital memories with sensors that attach themselves to the words we speak, places we see, even thoughts not yet expressed. Our lies and truths lived through our nights and days.

Like the sleeplessness of data itself, always mobile, circulating and recombinant, network surveillance lives under the strict obligation to police the full circumference of digital being: all those financial algorithms rendering instant, real-time judgments on questions of economic solvency; algorithms in the form of technologies of “deep packet inspection” for supervising violations of civil rights; algorithms for economic espionage in the name of national security; algorithms for pleasure, for gaming, for better apps; algorithms for tracking, recording and archiving the habitual activities and errant breaches of any human heart that makes up life in the data torrent today. While at one time insomnia referred only to a human sleep disorder, now a new form of insomnia–data insomnia–has been created.

So, then, some reports from the field of a pervasive machinery of surveillance that never seems to sleep, with its data farms, archive terror, face printing, embedded sensors, smart bodies, and cold data.

Data Insomnia

Lightning Storms in the Data Farm

The (NSA) data center was shut down through Tuesday. The source said there aren’t “arcs and fires” anymore but that the experts on the site still haven’t figured out what’s causing the problems. They have figured out how to prevent flashes of lightning, though.

“They’re seeing a pattern of where it gets to the meltdown point and they stop it before it blows again,” says the source. The source said that contractors have been injured and taken to the hospital due to electrocution, but not in the most recent shutdown. [1]

When finally powered up and fully online, the NSA (National Security Agency) Utah Data Center promises to be a prodigious tower of (digital) babel in the beautiful mountainous terrain of Bluffdale, Arizona. Not far from the now vanished site of Fort Douglas that was originally constructed to defend older lines of American continental communication including the stage coach line on the Oregon Trail and telegram facilities, the spyware data center also occupies a curious intersection between theology and technology, situated as it is in a community that Wired magazine describes as the largest Mormon-based polygamist community in the United States. Reportedly occupying 1.5 million square feet and costing over one billion dollars, the Utah Data Center is, in effect, the electronic cerebral cortex of a vast data harvesting system aimed primarily at gathering foreign signal intelligence but also “harvesting emails, phone records, text messages and other electronic data.” [2] As described by James Bamford in Wired:

A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks.. . .Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails. [3]

Definitely anticipating an unlimited future of information accumulation, the Utah Data Center is described as capable of storing five zettabytes of data, sufficient storage space, that is, for the next hundred years. [4] Of course, while technically awesome in its ability to harvest in one isolated Utah data site the world’s global communications potentially spanning an entire century, NSA’s spyware center has experienced very real problems at the double interface of unpredictable nature and human political ingenuity. While lightning storms crackled across the otherwise austere architecture of its massive data servers and “arcs and fires” seemed to break out spontaneously at the merest hint of data flowing, those human beings waiting to be harvested of their “patterns of life” were themselves engaged in creative forms of cyber-protest at the very gates of the data kingdom. Petitions were presented to the local town council demanding that vital water supplies to the data center be immediately terminated. Since cooling water is a critical requirement for any data farm that plans to mine the data skies with all the power enabled by five zettabytes of storage memory, this local protest in defense of civil liberties had the potential effect of eclipsing secret cryptography in favor of ground-truthing by water. With natural protests taking the form of fire in the air and human resistance privileging blockages in the flow of water, it was almost as if all the mythic furies associated with the four fundamental elements of the universe–fire, water, air, and earth–had suddenly assembled in the face of this monument to absolute (digital) knowledge. As for earth, protests involving this classical element constituted a literal read-out of the meaning of grounded resistance. A group of local civil libertarians adopted a highway running in front of the Utah Data Center for the sole purpose of holding up protest signs for passing motorists, while all the while engaging in the good citizenship practice of actually tidying up the highway and its immediate environment. Consequently, a curious case of a supposedly frictionless NSA data center smoothly aggregating complex streams of global data while buffeted by very real lines of friction involving lightning in the (data) sky, dammed up water, protesters disguised as highway cleaning crews, and very strange encounters in the desert air between the dream vectors of technocracy and polygamy. Perhaps what is really happening here is something that is not captured in all those data rushes of foreign, or for that matter, domestic signals intelligence and information awareness, namely that like all demands for meaning before it, this urge to absolute knowledge of the human universe is always quickly outrun by the complex particulars of humanity and nature alike. Not really as Camus supposed mythic indifference to the demand for absolute meaning, but something more subtle in its appearance, specifically that the technological dream of a perfect spyware universe of frictionless flows of information always generates in its wake unexpected and fully unpredictable lines of friction. That those lines of friction have no possibility of easy absorption into the hygienic and closed universe of tens of thousands of humming data servers does them no dishonor. It would simply indicate that a universe predicated on the security to be provided by the terrorism of the code is probably already doomed one hundred years in advance by that which cannot be avowed, included, or permitted–whether local citizenry gathering to turn off the cooling taps of water, lightning flashes across the server horizon, or that greatest line of friction of all, the loud media sound of Edward Snowden as he adds his own line of friction to the data harvest.

Not just lines of friction, though. There are also strange, and deeply enigmatic, symmetries. What the NSA is constructing in a desert bowl near Salt Lake City is a genealogical record of the digital future, one batch of signals intelligence at a time until that point over the next one hundred years some bright cryptographer in a still indeterminate future time will find in all that Big Data not simply patterns of life but patterns of whole societies, of republics, democracies, empires, tracing the rise and fall of sometimes clashing civilizations, contested visions of political economy. Literally, a history of the future traced out in the data stream. However, what is truly enigmatic in its implications is the present-day fact that there is not simply one, but two, major experiments in patient, genealogical research underway in Utah. Certainly, the technological probe of the digital future that is the NSA’s Utah Data Center, but also the theological tracking of family genealogy that has long been underway in nuclear-bomb proof caves near Salt Lake City. So, then two genealogies, the first aimed at cryptographic analysis of information culture–past, present and future; and the second a theological archiving of detailed family genealogies, tracing its arc from the ancient past to the still unknown future. Of course, it could just be coincidence, an unnoticed fact of surveillance history, that the theologically signified region of Salt Lake City with its famous history of the Mormon Trek led by Joseph Smith from the darkly wooded valley of Sharon, Vermont to the promised land of Salt Lake City was chosen by the NSA as the site of its first major server farm. Perhaps the choice of Utah as a spyware center was done for the usual pragmatic budgetary reason: cheap electricity, plentiful water with the added advantage of sometimes hiring, according to some media reports, [5] Mormon missionaries as NSA data analysts given their acquired skills in foreign languages. It could also be the case, though, that this convergence of technocratic and religious interests in the question of genealogy, one present- and future oriented and the other privileging the past, is symptomatic of a deeper convergence between technology and theology on the question of absolute knowledge. In this case, what might be actually happening in the scrublands of Utah are two deeply iconic exercises in truth-seeking: the one dealing with hidden patterns of signifiers in all those flows of global information and the other focused on equally hidden patterns of theological truth-saying revealed in the genealogy of family histories. While this might make of the NSA only the most recent manifestation of what might be described as the redemption quest akin to a form of the new Mormonism in American public affairs, it would also make of Mormon theology, with its tripartite focus on redemptive visions, missionary practice, and patient genealogy the premonitory consciousness of the animating historical vision of the NSA itself. Not crudely in the sense of an open, avowed affiliation between the NSA and Mormonism, but something more subtle and thus more deeply entangled: namely that the NSA as the self-avowed secret spearhead of cybernetically sophisticated technological adventurism also has its eyes on the prize of merging the redemption story that is the essence of the “American dream” with (digital) missionary consciousness and cryptographic genealogy. In other words, an unfolding symmetry of the Book of Mormon and Big Data in the mountains, deserts, and salt lakes of all the Utah’s of the data mind.

Archive Terror

The Washington Post revealed four new slides from its trove of top secret PRISM information, appearing to confirm some of the initial reports . . . about the nature of the US government surveillance program.

Notably, the new slides appear to confirm whistleblower Edward Snowden’s claims that PRISM allows the NSA and FBI to perform real-time surveillance of email and instant messaging, though it’s still not clear which specific internet servers allow such surveillance (As originally reported, PRISM providers include Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple.) The Post claims that “depending on the provider, the NSA may receive live notifications when a target logs on or sends an email, text, or voice chat at it happens. [6]

During a recent interview in a Moscow hotel with the editor of The Guardian, Snowden elaborated further on the political significance of his whistleblowing, arguing that the surveillance state depends for its very existence on the basic assertion that digital experience in its totality is exempt from the traditionally protected domains of individual privacy. Grant that governmental claim, according to Snowden, and what inevitably results is something like PRISM with its unfettered, real-time access to the most intimate details of individuals. Not necessarily only “targeted” individuals, but in Snowden’s account one of the common “fringe benefits” for NSA analysts was the circulation of sexually explicit images of subjects, without their awareness and from the “privacy” of their homes.

How, then, do we begin to understand a form of power that works in secrecy, that functions, on the one hand, by a highly routinized, hyper-rational organization of billions of bytes of Big Data into differentiated streams of classification, ordering, and targeting, and then just as quickly reverts into the language of the voyeur, the (digital) stalker? Beyond the purely rhetorical contestation associated with governmental assertion of the demands of national security and counter-challenges by defenders of civil rights concerned with the instant liquidation of individual privacy, is it possible that we are dealing here with a demonstrably new expression of power–prismatic power–a form of power that is fully unique to the digital epoch from which it has surfaced as its most avant-garde manifestation and retrograde (political) expression?

In this case, it is not purely coincidental that the name, PRISM, has been selected as the name for a top secret US government surveillance program. In the science of optics, a prism serves to divide white light into the colors of the spectrum or for refracting, reflecting, deviating light. Which is precisely how power operates in the age of Big Data, that point where what matters is not the geography of material bodies, but the hidden content of their “white light”–the refractions, reflections, and deviations given off by the data torrent of targeted bodies–email, text, or voice chat–as they are passed through the “PRISM Collection Dataflow.” Here, like a latter-day version of Isaac Newton’s experiment some three hundred years ago, in which light passed through a prism first revealed the colors of the electromagnetic spectrum, the PRISM Collection Dataflow passes the content of individual data biographies–some specifically targeted, most harvested from the servers and routers of the communication industry–through the prism of its collection dataflow in order to suddenly bring into visibility bands of hidden political trajectories from the larger mass of undifferentiated detail. Theoretically, the digital traces of subjects, whether domestic or international, will be studied to determine how they fall on the spectrum of national security, whether a normal separation along the spectrum of political loyalties or variations in refraction, reflection, and deviation that may require further scrutiny. For the latter, there are multiple data programs carefully coded for further classification and ordering: Printaura, Scissors, Pinwale, Traffic Thief, Fallout, Conveyance, Nucleon, Marina & Mainway. As the report in The Washington Post notes:

Two of the new slides detail the data collection process, from the initial input of an agency analyst, to data analysis under several previously-reported analysis tools such as Marina (internet data), Mainway (call records), Nucleon (voice data), and Pinwale (video data). [7]

What lends a feeling of claustrophobia and suffocation to this secret machinery of government surveillance is not simply its obvious metaphoric presence as a tangible sign of intrusive surveillance, but the fact that its otherwise hyper-rational software programs are themselves disturbed by the deviant libidinal energies of its data analysts, all those NSA analysts taking full advantage of the “fringe benefits” of the Prism Collection Dataflow. Here, there may be, in fact, a double prism operating at the center of power under the sign of Big Data: the first a refraction of multiple streams of data information through the prism of surveillance programs of control; and the second an immediate reversal of the field of surveillance, this time with the voyeurism of NSA analysts as a metonymic cut across the pure sign of surveillance–puerile male affect bending the optics of surveillance in the direction of cynicism, capriciousness, and perversity. When intrusive surveillance meets uncontrolled affect, prismatic power has about it all the refracted energy and distorted aims of a form of control that is seemingly lost in the illusions of its own optics.

Face Print

“Just load existing photos of your known shoplifters, members of organized crime retail syndicates, persons of interest and your best customers into FaceFirst,” a marketing pitch on the company’s site explains. “Instantly, when a person in your FaceFirst database steps into one of your stores, you are sent an email, text or SMS alert that includes their pictures and all biographical information of the known individual so that you can take immediate and appropriate action.” [8]

Priceless. Not only the proliferation of technologies of “total information awareness” by secret governmental agencies intent on capturing every refraction of light-speed data emitted by the digital self within the prisms of power, but now facial recognition technology for commercial use that involves the construction of biometric face prints of the population. At this point, not the entire population but only those high-value targets, including both criminals and preferred high-spending customers, identified in advance by facial recognition software triggered by biometric memories of faces that it has previously scanned for purposes of instant recall. In this software scenario, the digital face rises into privileged visibility as a secure biometric tag.

There are, of course, the inevitable lingering questions of digital privacy. Who owns the rights to your digital face? And specifically, who owns the recall rights on your digital face over an extended period of (database) time? Do you automatically assent to the alienation of rights to the acquisition, classification, ordering and targeting of your digital face with the simple act of shopping in a store, going through security screening at the airport, applying for a passport, or, for that matter, obtaining a driver’s license? And, if so, would it be reasonable to conclude that the alienation of individual rights over biometric signs of their digital identity is a necessary feature for passing beyond the lip of the net to full admission in the digital galaxy? This is not simply a reprise of traditional arguments concerning the balance that often needs to be struck between personal privacy and collective security, if only in the above case the security of the business database, but something more complicated. Literally, with the deconstruction of the face that is entailed by the mathematical vivisection of facial biometrics, the face itself has suddenly split in two, with the one face purely biological, uniquely singular to the individual that inhabits the historical markings of its smiles and frowns and wrinkles, and the other face distinctly biometric–a face print–mathematically coded, biometrically tagged, circulating in an anonymous database, beyond history, a ghostly remainder beyond material memories of the living singularity that it once was. In this case, what happens when we exist in a culture increasingly populated by facial recognition technologies that involve the deconstruction of the face to that point of excess where the database face not only floats away as something increasingly phantasmatic–a radically split face for a culture of radically split selves–but returns, again and again, as a permanent, trustworthy, machine-readable identifier of bodily presence? Here, it is no longer surveillance that never sleeps but something perhaps more profoundly melancholic, namely all those biometric images captured by ubiquitous facial recognition technologies stored in lifeless, dark databases like so many catacombs of the (digital) future. Sensitive to other stories, at other times restless, wandering ghostly spirits seeking a return to their earthly bodily presence, we wonder if in all those facial catacombs of the archived present and facial recognition future there will not also be heard, or perhaps quietly but persistently felt, like a rush of air on a windless night the insistent, melancholic sound of those intimation of deprival that is the deconstruction of the face. But of course this is preposterous, because we know that when technology eclipses mythology, there is no longer room for the hauntings of ghostly remainders at the table of biometrics. Consequently, a future of dead faces with frozen images–digitally authorized, facially recognized and biometrically tagged–as the first of all the artificial successors, file by file, to their human facial predecessors.

Biometric Sensors

Embedded Sensors

With the overall trajectory of mass surveillance technologies apparently aimed at developing biometrics for every overexposed subject, a recent report on the creation of “New Electronic Sensors (that) Stick to Skin as Temporary Tattoos” [9] is of particular importance. Designed by John A. Rogers of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in collaboration with research colleagues in China and Singapore, these “epidermal electronics” have diverse applications:

Ultimately, Rogers says, “we want to have a much more ultimate integration” with the body, beyond simply mounting something very close to the skin. He hopes that his devices will eventually be able to use chemical information from the skin in addition to electrical information. [10]

A “thin, flexible sensor that can be applied with water, like a temporary tattoo,” the electronic tattoo is intended to provide precise measurements of emissions from the “brain, heart, and muscles.” So, then, no longer images of bodies wired to hovering machines or physical probes that break the surface of the skin for deeper penetration, but now sensors that “are thinner than a human hair, perhaps powered in the future by solar cells,” perfectly aestheticized in their degree of cultural coolness. In other words, the body literally repurposed as a semiconductor delivering messages from its own physiological interiority to the growing number of satellites of mass surveillance.

We wonder, though, what would happen in the future if, and more probably when, this explicitly medical technology is repurposed as an innovative technology of bodily surveillance? Electronic tattoos, that is, for a time when surveillance moves from the outside of the body to interior measurements of brain waves, muscle contractions, and blood flow? And what would happen when the bodily information harvested is not simply confined to the domain of the electrical but is articulated in the much more invasive language of the chemical–the very language that is central to the functioning of the human nervous system? Are we simply speaking to a difference of degree about, for instance, relatively crude visual images of bodily movement versus biological markers of the body’s interior, and until now, relatively unnoticed patterns of (chemical) life? Or is this report on the prototyping of epidermal tattoos more in the nature of a more fundamental break, namely a biological device that potentially facilitates a dramatic extrusion of mass surveillance systems into the essence not just of bodily physiology but also affect and consciousness? Perfectly adaptable to the development of a form of surveillance that requires biometric tracking of individual subjects–their moods, activities, degrees of endurance and potential breakdowns–electronic skin tattoos bring us to the threshold of a very new form of technological embed_edness. A uniquely powerful fusion of biology and electronics, epidermal tattoos are said to “bend, stretch and squeeze along with human skin,” and maintain contact by relying on “the natural stickiness credited for geckoes’ ability to cling to surfaces.” [11] It is almost as if these tattoos are not simply chemical additions to the existing surface of the diffuse, flexible organ of the skin, but are more in the way of wearing a second skin for purposes of better internal measurements. Here, the body literally begins to re-skin itself as a living, breathing, electrically charged and chemically vapored organ of surveillance. No need, then, for surveillance to continue to rely on the external communications of its many targets of investigation because bodies augmented with e-tattoos are actually growing bio-technological surveillance organs of their own. Epidermal tattoos, therefore, as perhaps the first palpable sign of the synthetic bodily flesh of all those future bodies of biometric tracking.

Machines to Bodies (M2B): Smart Bodies, Cold Data and “Five Eyes”

Are smart bodies in a culture of cold data the probable future of technologies of mass surveillance? In response to the challenge of bodily materiality, with its hidden passions, secret dreams, and unexpected–and often unpredictable–actions, the new security state is rapidly moving towards the deployment of a new generation of smart bodies located on the always searchable smart grid of technologies of mass surveillance. Since machine readability is enhanced by biometric identifiers, the aim would be to populate the skin surface with an array of sensors for improved machine readability. For the moment, the transition to smart bodies equipped with electronic skin tattoos, locatable media, and prosthetics facilitating easy biometric tracking is marked by technical, and then political, challenges as the new security state works to filter, archive, and tag the immense data oceans of global communication. It is in this context that there can be such dramatic political encounters between passionate defenders of individual privacy and proponents of the new security state interested in the total awareness provided by networked communication.

However, this is probably only a temporary transitional period since the implacable movement of surveillance technologies is towards forms of automated surveillance of smart bodies–machine-to-body communications (M2B)–that would quickly outstrip privacy concerns in favor of continuous flows of individual bodily telemetry: its location, moods, nervous physiology, heart rate, affective breakthroughs, and even medical emergencies. Taking a cue from the pervasive networks of smart grids that have been installed in many cities as part of managing energy consumption, smart bodies, like domestic homes before them, are visualized as inhabited cybernetic systems, high in information and low in energy, emitting streams of machine-readable data. For all intents and purposes, GPS-enabled smart homes are early avatars of the smart body–data tracking megaphones doubling as digital communication devices.

From the perspective of technological futurists, there is nothing really to fear in the emergent reality of a smart future with bodies enmeshed in dense networks of tracking machines, since those very same bodies will likely also be equipped with counter-tracking prosthetics–digital devices capable of quantifying the extent and intensity of data emissions between bodies and the surrounding environment of surveillance trackers. For example, as the technological futurist Kevin Kelly has stated: “Tracking and surveillance are only going to get more prevalent, but they may move toward “coveillance” so that we can control who’s monitoring us and what they are monitoring.” [12]

Some may argue that the human body, with all its complex inflections and unbounded mediations, will never really be reducible to a smart body circulating within a global smart grid, but that argument is countered by noting the present migration of surveillance technology towards a greater invisibility through miniaturization, breaking the skin barrier with digital devices functioning at the interface of biology, computation, and electronics, and, in fact, layering the body with data probes designed with the qualities of human skin itself–soft, malleable, bendable, fluid, elastic, tough.

A future, then, of cold information–diffuse, circulating, commutative, dissuasive–with bodies chilled to the degree-zero of recombinant flows of information. Morphologically, information has always been hygienic in its coldness, always ready to perform spectacular sign-switches between metaphor and metonymy. What this means for understanding technologies of mass surveillance is that the future of smart bodies will probably be neither the dystopia of total information dominance on the part of powerful interests nor the utopia of free-flowing communication by complicated individuals, but something else, namely friction between these warring impulses in the cynical sign-system that is information culture. Sometimes flows of cold information will be contested locally, whether in debates concerning the policing of information and free speech in urban protests, environmental contestations, and Indigenous blockades of railroads, pipelines, and highways in isolated areas off-grid, or the abbreviated attention span of mass media. At other times, information wars will be generalized across the planet, with lines of friction leaping beyond the boundaries of specific states in order to be inscribed in larger debates concerning issues related to surveillance and privacy, collective modulations of soft control and individual autonomy, that move at the process speed of instant, global connectivity across networked culture. Here, the essence of cold information lies in the friction, the fracture, the instant reversal of the always doubled sign of information.

Which brings us to the meaning of surveillance in the epoch of information as a flickering signifier, that point where all the referents are always capable of performing instant sign-switches from villain to savior, from active agents of generalized public scrutiny to passive victims of destructive overexposure. Wouldn’t this mean, though, that in a culture of cold information, surveillance technologies must themselves also become flickering signifiers, simultaneously both predator and victim? Indications that this is the case are everywhere today. For example, the primary apparatus of contemporary mass surveillance in the West is performed by a previously undisclosed collaboration of state intelligence agencies, appropriately titled “Five Eyes,” after the fact that it coordinates sophisticated signals intelligence among the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Based on intelligence-sharing agreements developed during WWII and strikingly similar in its pattern of operation to the later “Condor” program that was created by several Latin American governments during the dark years of the “dirty wars,” Five Eyes coordinates flows of information acquired by upstream and downstream surveillance among the governments involved. Currently justified by political rhetoric framing the War on Terror and consequently authorized by law or, at least, by loopholes in existing law, Five Eyes is network conscious, geographically specific, and action-oriented, tracking information, acquiring individual targets, assembling complex profiles of targeted individuals, and acquiring massive quantities of metadata limited only by the rule of the “three hops”–tracking, that is, email message, cell phone call, or fiber-optic communication across the three hops of the originating message, the recipient, and networks of individuals and groups communicating with anyone and at any time in the first two hops. While Five Eyes has attracted widespread criticism from privacy advocates for its relentless attempts to establish an apparatus of total information awareness, it should be kept in mind that the original and continuing motivation of this secret apparatus of control has about it the sensibility of an injured victim–bunkered states living in really existent existential, even psychic, fear of having their bounded borders pierced, broken, and invaded by actual terrorists or by phantasmatically threatening breaches of their sovereign boundaries by “illegal” immigrants, the nomadic, the refugee, the planetary dispossessed. A perfect fusion of aggressive surveillance and injured sensibility, Five Eyes constitutes, in the end, a flickering signifier–a palpable sign of what is to come in the approaching culture of cold information and smart, increasingly overexposed, smart bodies.

Snowden’s Challenge

Republic of Democracy, Empire of Data

“Empires do not last, and their ends are usually unpleasant.” [13]

Reflecting upon the genealogy of the surveillance state, its tactics, logistics, and overall destiny, we should listen carefully to the insights of Chalmers Johnson, a writer of the serpentine pathways of contemporary power. A historian of American militarism, a geographer of the global network of garrisons that practically realize the ends of such militarism and, best of all, a profound mythologist who has read the language of hyper power through the lens of the ancient god of Nemesis with its prescriptions for “divine justice and vengeance,” Johnson wrote a prophetic history of the future in his trilogy of works: Blowback, Nemesis, and The Sorrows of Empire. The unifying theme of Johnson’s historical imagination was that the immediate history of the ascendancy of militarism, the garrisoning and the globe, the growth of governmental secrecy, the proliferation of technologies of mass surveillance and the growth of hyper power associated with the unilateralism of this, the most recent of all the empires of the past, could only really be understood within the larger canvas of the decline of the American Republic and the triumphant rise of the empire of the United States. For Johnson, a thinker imbued with a deep sense of tragedy on the question of power as much as with lucid intelligence concerning the increasingly ruthless application of the power of empire across the surface of the earth and beyond, the historical break between Republic and Empire in the American mind was not limited to simply a question of what was to be privileged–domestic concerns or international responsibilities–but had to do with a larger epistemic rupture in American political rhetoric, one that involved a fundamental clash between the founding ideals of American democracy and the once and future requirements of imperial power. In his estimation, the contemporary American political condition is this:

In Nemesis, I have tried to present historical, political, economic, and philosophical evidence of where our current behavior is likely to lead. Specifically, I believe that to maintain our empire abroad requires resources and commitments that will inevitably undercut our domestic democracy and in the end produce a military dictatorship or its civilian equivalent.. . . History is instructive on this dilemma. If we choose to keep our empire as the Roman Republic did, we will certainly lose our democracy and grimly await the eventual blowback that imperialism generates. [14]

With Johnson’s political, indeed profoundly mythological, warnings in mind, we listened intently one recent spring afternoon to two clashing visions of the American future, both deeply invested in questions related to empire and democracy in the American political imagination, both immanently critical of the other, but, for all that, unified to the extent that their political rhetoric rose to the status of patterns of speech and of thought indicative of world-historical figures, one speaking in defense of the democratic ideals of the American Republic and the other extolling the virtues of empire. In the strange curves of history, the defender of the patriotic rights of empire and hence the virtues of what was, in his terms, the moral righteousness of power was President Barack Obama, in a speech to the graduating class of military cadets at West Point, while the speaker who summed up in the political gravity of his words and the ethical purchase of the dangers of the contemporary state of mass surveillance for the American Republic was Edward Snowden. Curiously, this fateful contest of ideals between the hard realities of empire and the always fragile possibilities of democracy occurred on the very same day, one speaking about “believing in the moral purpose of American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being” and the other providing a tempered but, for all that, chillingly analytical diagnosis, of the precise methods by which the surveillance state is intent on the final eclipse of the American Republic by strategies ranging from suppressing democratic dissent to literally harvesting the upstream and downstream of global communication. Just as President Obama raised the moral stakes of American exceptionalism by making it a matter of the very “fiber of (his) being,” Edward Snowden, a remarkably courageous thinker much in the longer tradition of American ethical dissenters like Henry David Thoreau, very much provided the impression of being the last patriot of a dying American Republic. While it was clear as much by the martial solemnity of the occasion at West Point as by the moral suasion of his rhetoric that Obama was constitutionally invested with all the powers of Commander in Chief of American empire, it must also be said that, for one brief moment, the sheer ethical urgency of Snowden’s warnings about the dark nihilism of the American security state very much made him a candidate, at least in moral terms, to leadership of the founding democratic ideals of the American Republic. That Snowden has quickly become such a deeply polarizing figure in American political discourse, viewed as a “traitor” by some and a “patriot” by others, follows consequentially from the distinction between empire and republic. Viewed from the perspective of the logic of empire, with its focus on the self-preservation of power for which the immense secrecy associated with the security apparatus is considered to be an absolute requirement, Snowden’s actions in exposing technologies of mass surveillance to public scrutiny is objectively traitorous. Understood in terms of the inspiring dreams of political democracy, with its rebellious attitude towards absolutist expressions of power that was, and is, the essence of the American Republic, Snowden is properly considered to be not simply a patriot, but genuinely heroic in paying the price for which the stakes are now, as they always were, his own life and death. So, then, a pure sign at the intersection of the deeply conflicting visions of democracy and power, Snowden’s fate has risen above his own autobiographical limits to become something profoundly symbolic, namely a line of resistance against the prevailing structural logic of the times, the ethical power of which is verified by the hysterical ferocity which the very mention of his name elicits from the elite leadership of the new security state. Of course, given the fluidity of power, the unified reaction of proponents of the new security state is quickly being breached.

Cynical Surveillance

What makes Snowden’s revelations so dangerous from the perspective of the new security state is something perfectly doubled in its nature. First, definitely not a thinker from the outside speaking the already clichéd rhetoric of “truth to power,” Snowden is an insider to the contemporary games of power. In his own terms, he was a CIA agent with computer expertise working under contract to the US government for a private security firm with access to contemporary technologies of mass surveillance. In a digital epoch in which every margin is capable of becoming the center of (networked) things, Snowden could so readily reveal the secrets of power because power itself has become something diffuse, circulating, liquid, downloadable at the speed of a flash drive. For a form of surveillance power that wishes to remain secretive, unbounded, hidden behind a veil of uncertainty as to its capabilities and intentions, avoiding exposure, particularly over-exposure, at all costs, the secret that Snowden revealed, and probably the reason why the national security state is so intent on prosecuting him under the harsh regime of espionage laws is its palpable fear that that there are perhaps many potential Snowden’s, many potential acts of dissenting political conscience in the minds and hearts of the specialist community of data analysts class that daily facilitate sophisticated technologies of mass surveillance. If Snowden could be deliberately marooned in Moscow by the cancellation of his passport by the US State Department, that should properly be understood in the nature of the unfolding political theater of the surveillance state–a preemptive, positional gesture on the part of the new security state to physically link in the public mind a dangerous truth-sayer of the great secrets of power with a political regime with a manifestly negative relationship to questions of political transparency and democracy. When Alexis de Toqueville once remarked that the high visibility of American prisons was in itself a form of political communication by providing visible warnings of the price to be paid for acts of transgression, he could not have foreseen that when the logic of empire breaks with the constitutional practices of the American Republic that there would be other prisons in the specular imagery of mass media, including those images of Snowden in flight, at first in limbo at the airport in Moscow and then taking precarious refuge in the city of Moscow itself.

Militarizing Cyberspace

In the dreamy 1990s, when the Internet was first popularized, the ruling meme was beautifully and evocatively utopian with that enduring desire in the human imagination for a technology of communication that finally matched the human desire for connectivity and (universal) community finally finding its digital expression in networked communication. Few voices were raised concerning the specter of harsher realities to come, namely the possibility that the Internet was also a powerful vehicle for sophisticated new iterations of ideologies of control as well as for inscribing a new global class structure on the world. To the suggestion that the destiny of the digital future was likely to be the rapid development of a new ruling class, the virtual class, [15] with its leading fragments, whether information specialists, from coders to robotic researchers, or corporate visionaries closely linked–nation by nation, continent by continent, industry by industry–by a common (technocratic) world-view and equally shared interests, the response was just as often that this is purely dystopian conjecture. As the years since the official launch in 9/11 of the counter-revolution in digital matters indicates, the original funding of the Internet by DARPA was truly premonitory, confirming in the contemporary effective militarization of the networked communication that the visionary idea of developing a global form of network connectivity that harvested the most intimate forms of individual consciousness on behalf of swelling data banks was as brilliant in its military foresightedness as it was chilling in its impact.

The public rhetoric justifying this counter-revolution in digital affairs is as threadbare as it is cynical. That, in fact, seems to be the point. When the increasingly phantasmagoric search for scapegoats of the day finally ceases, whether through lack of plausibility or declining public interest in the necessity of public justifications for undermining the essentially modernist, and thus residual, values of democracy, privacy, and law, a greater reality finally breaks to the surface of consciousness, namely that the digital future has already been hijacked by visions of power and class riding the fast current of the (digitally) new.

Perhaps what we are experiencing today are simply expressions of absolute panic on the part of traditional institutions–nation-states that have effectively lost control of their own sovereignty through the porous, unbounded nature of digital communication. In this case, political institutions based on the governance of territory are objectively threatened by an information culture that undermines traditional conceptions of political sovereignty by transforming the always active subjects of the new world of social media into potentially creative centers of social and political agency. Confronted with this elemental conflict between the emancipatory possibilities of fundamentally new relations of technological communication and old forms of political control, the response on the part of the controlling network of surveillance states is as predictable as it is relentless, namely to view domestic populations with their enhanced social media mobility as potential enemies of a state whose phantasms of perfect security increasingly come to focus on framing individuals as biometric subjects whose every movement will be tracked, every communication monitored, and every affect analyzed for its pattern-consistency. In other words, old forms of control are now being reconfigured as the new real.

With this, we enter an unfolding future of biometric surveillance as both predator and parasite–predatory because it is violently aggressive in its application of the political axiomatic of the security state to domestic populations most of all; and parasitical because biometric surveillance functions by attaching itself to the full sensory apparatus of biometric subjects. Biometric surveillance, then, as the symptomatic sign of the emergence of a new order of power–cynical power. Perfectly opaque in its purposes, random in its flows, wildly oscillating between the projection of power abroad and protestations of official innocence in the homeland, with biometric surveillance power now has achieved a state of fully realized cynicism. Like a floating sign that has abandoned relations with its originating signifier, cynical power can be so effective because it exceeds any limiting conditions. Cynical power thrives by actively generating conditions of chaos and lawlessness while, at the same time, it preserves itself by staking out positions premised on moral righteousness and appeals to political exceptionalism. Neither purely anarchic nor necessarily constrained by law, cynical power is, in the end, how contemporary technologies of mass surveillance express themselves politically. Here, power works by carefully staged strategies of impossibility, sometimes functioning to create generalized conditions of insecurity and fear within domestic populations while simultaneously justifying its use of often invisible, unchronicled exceptional powers as absolutely necessary for securing the boundaries, external and internal, of the state. The required political formula for the inauguration of cynical power and, consequently, the development of technologies of cynical surveillance always seems to follow the same fourfold logic: affectively, create conditions for emotional receptiveness within targeted populations of fear and insecurity; strategically, actively deploy sophisticated technologies of surveillance without any limiting conditions; morally, justify the use of intrusive surveillance technologies by random appeals to threats of terrorism, whether foreign enemies or domestic threats; and biologically, work to link surveillance technologies with the creation of a new form of life required by a society mediated by the bunker state, policing and austerity, namely the biometric subject.

Tripwires in Cryptography

Biometric Subjectivity

Who could or would have suspected that the much hoped-for utopia of network communication would have terminated so quickly with a global system of meticulously machined individual surveillance as automatic in its data harvesting as it is strategic in its (individuated) target acquisitioning? Combining parallel tendencies involving a telecommunications sector invested in the sophisticated algorithms of analytical advertising and increasingly technocratic governments driven by a shared agenda of austerity economics, the bunker state and the disciplinary society, contemporary surveillance practices are perhaps best understood as premonitory signs of the uncertain future. No longer limited to questions of individual privacy, reflecting upon the question of surveillance discloses key tendencies involved in the emerging world culture of capitalist technocracy, with its complex mediation of psychic residues from the past, social detritus from the present, and the technologically enabled evacuation of human subjectivity and, with it, the eclipse of the social as the dominant pattern of the contemporary regime of political intelligibility. Certainly not stable and definitely not guaranteed to endure, the present situation is seemingly marked by a strange divergence of past and future. While the future has apparently been hijacked by a sudden and vast extension of technological capabilities for network surveillance and intrusion, the really existent world of contemporary political reality is increasingly characterized by the appearance anew of all the signs of unsettled ethnic disputes, persistent racism, ancient religious rivalries, and class warfare endemic to primitive capitalism. Consequently, while the technologically enabled societies of the West are capable of being fully seduced by the ideology of transhumanism with its dreams of coded flesh, process bodies, and machine-friendly consciousness, actual political reality reveals something dramatically different, namely the greater complexity of Eurasian ideology as the new Russian political pastoral, resurrected images of a new Islamic Caliphate and, all the while, disaffected children of affluent societies rallying to those enduring battle cries of the alienated heart, whether religious fundamentalism, atavistic politics or direct action violence. Contrary to digital expectations of a newly reconfigured, resplendently technical world of globalized real-time and real-space, today’s reality more closely resembles a fundamental and decisive break between the categories of technologically mediated space and historically determined time. For every digitally augmented individual strolling the city streets with Google Glasses for eyes, buds for ears, Big Data for better ambient awareness, and SnapChat for enhanced affectivity, there’s another passionate struggle for human loyalties underway with its alternative dreams of Caliphates inscribed on the real-earth of religious warfare, revived Russian imperial dreams of Eurasian mastery, and always those reportedly fifty million refugees wandering the skin of the planet, sometimes policed in official shelters but usually effaced of their humanity–vulnerable, precarious, literally the forgotten remainder living outside of digitally bound space and historically inscribed time.

We mention the inherently complicated messiness of the question of surveillance–its tangled borders of time and space–because the contemporary era of cynical surveillance, with its technological erasure of hard-fought centuries of legal rights concerning individual privacy and democratic association by intrusive net surveillance and the systematic harvesting of metadata may be the first sign of an emerging epochal war between the clashing cosmologies of digital data, religious faith, and recidivist memories of failed imperial projects. When the space-binding societies of the technological nebula that is digital culture collide with the still uncongealed, still spiraling astral galaxies of religious and political fundamentalism, the result is as predictable as it is grim. In this case, threatened by unanticipated and definitely unforeseen dangers from the outside, undermined by uncertain loyalties domestically and deeply mistrustful of the uncontrollable global flow of communication, digitally powered forms of governmentalization do what they do best, namely go to ground in the greater security provided by the bunker state with its ubiquitous surveillance of domestic populations, strict border controls, and psychically engineered appeals to the root affects of fear, insecurity, and anger. All the while, though, the danger grows as the complications of time-based histories of political struggle and religiously inspired warfare threaten to overwhelm spatially oriented empires of imperial power, which for all their machineries of surveillance often exhibit diminished awareness of the growing political complexity of the contemporary era. In this case, heightened accumulation of massive amounts of metadata, with all those galaxies of relational networks waiting impatiently to be decoded and deciphered of its underlying patterns, is just as often accompanied by an equally dramatic fall in political understanding of those dimensions hidden by the glare of metadata–the broken loyalty of a wavering heart, sudden internal exiles of the political imagination of the dissenter who says no, the stubborn rise of individual consciousness that refuses to be eclipsed by its biometric subjectivity, the system coder caught in the grip of critical political awareness, the agent of surveillance who experiences a fatal loss of faith in the cynicism of his obligatory duties. When space and time collide, when metadata falls from the sky into the hard ground of individuation, that is the precise point where all the future systems of mass surveillance undergo a fatal turn, instantly reversing the polarities of a system that, until now, has worked by accelerating the intensity and extensiveness of the eye of surveillance as its orbits the biometric subject.

The (Cryptographic) Lab Experiment: For Whom and For What?

But, of course, this leaves the future of the biometric subject in doubt. Possessing no certain constitutional or legal rights of its own, having no necessary fixed boundaries, called into existence by the very same surveillance technologies that then function to monitor and track its activities, not recognized as something natural by the bodies from which its information is generated, having only the existence of a constant flow of data emitted by individuals that increasingly resent its shadowy appearance, an individuated archive in the data clouds, the biometric subject is simultaneously subject and object of its own digital fate. Deeply parasitical because it feeds on the extended nervous system of the subjects that it inhabits and instinctively predatory because its metadata are viewed as the only reliable (electronic) test of political loyalty in a system that lives in fear of potential subversion from within and without, the biometric subject is that unhappiest of all forms of consciousness–an object of increasingly cynical experimentation. While power might once have been more circumspect in its intrusive surveillance, now it is emboldened, even contemptuous, in its insistence that it has sovereign authority to mark for deeper inspection the different categories of biometric subjects. Increasingly dropping even the pretense of actual “terrorists” as its prime justification, the digital dragnet trawls for any visible sign of political dissent, including the rhetorical expansion of the marker of terrorism to environmental activists, human rights workers, labor organizers, as well as those active in limiting technologies of mass surveillance. Once again, as in twentieth-century totalitarian regimes, the search for absolute loyalty begets the (electronic) tyranny of absolute power.

With this peculiar twist: unlike traditional forms of political totalitarianism, the contemporary demand for absolute subordination to the aims of the new security state and its deep packet inspection of the electronic trails of biometric subjects remains highly experimental, even cryptologically adventurous, in its methods. It is as if the system of power is still unsure of the real object of its fascination, still uncertain of the potential boundaries of a cybernetic world that operates in the language of viral contagions and where every biometric subject marked for deep inspection remains an enigmatic mixture of data clouds, corporeal bodily traces, and those invisible, and consequently undetectable, regions of the off-grid, from unarticulated affect to off-line behavior. Perhaps that explains why contemporary surveillance technologies have about them the feeling of improvised laboratory experiments that, while focused on the data markers left by the humiliated subjects that we all are now, are effectively experiments in the future of biometric subjectivity.

For example, consider two recently reported experiments in surveillance strategies for the future, the first involving a massive (social) laboratory experiment in the psychic inoculation of a selected social media audience with “emotional contagion,” and the second an equally large (political) experiment in tracking the metadata of an unsuspecting airport WiFi population, hop by (digital) hop over a two-week period. In the first case, Facebook’s Core Data Science team, in collaboration with researchers from Cornell University and the University of California at San Francisco, conducted, without notification or informed consent, an online experiment in Skinnerian operant conditioning targeting an unsuspecting audience of almost 700,000 Facebook users. [16] Perhaps unconsciously influenced by neurological conditioning tactics suggested by Orwell’s Brave New World and yet, for all that, blissfully unaware of contemporary advertising theory with its acute sensitivity to strategies of behavioral modification, the experiment inoculated Facebook users with very different streams of news feeds, one modified to emphasize the positive and the other privileging the negative. The aim of this study in operant conditioning was straightforward, namely whether the psychological shaping of news feeds was effective–and to what extent–in creating states of emotional contagion among Facebook users. Coincidentally, it was also reported that one of the researchers involved in “the massive emotion-manipulation study” also does “active work on DoD’s (Department of Defense) Minerva program, which studies the spread, manipulation and evolution of online beliefs.” [17]

While the debate on the relative merits of this experiment in neurological conditioning typically involves Facebook executives declaiming in favor of “creativity and innovation” versus privacy advocates concerned about the absence of opt-out provisions, there is a larger issue at stake in this experiment on the digital future that has been left unremarked. According to the research paper based on the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, what’s really at stake in this experiment is the affective nature of shared experience, the fact, that is, that emotional contagion involving “depression and happiness” can be transferred by way of “experiencing an interaction” rather than direct exposure to “a partner’s emotion.” In other words, social media networks as potential objects of tactics and strategies involved with psy-ops, whether for commercial or military purposes. Here, if news feeds on all the Facebooks of the social media world can be slightly altered to inject just the minimum dose of optimism or negativity, there is a reasonable expectation of a consequent transformation in the shared affectivity of biometric subjects. Not so much operant conditioning any longer with its controlled feedback loops, but something more insidious, namely biometric conditioning with its modulated flows of information, psychic transfers of emotional affect from depression to optimism by “experiencing an interaction,” and mirroring individual moods with the prevailing (social media) norm. When social media becomes a self-contained reality-principle, one downside is its potential for psychic modulation by the play of soft power–power that no longer operates in the language of violence or manipulation, but in the more complex psychic language of suggestion and mesmerism. Regarding the questions–For Whom? and For What?–there is an interesting analysis by Nafeez Ammed in The Guardian (titled “Pentagon preparing for mass civil breakdown”) that suggests that parallel research projects funded by the US Department of Defense as part of the “Minerva Research Initiative” are aimed at militarizing social science “to develop ‘operational tools’ to target peaceful activists and protest movements”:

Among the projects awarded for the period 2014-17 is a Cornell University-led study managed by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research which aims to develop an empirical model of the “dynamics of social movement mobilization and contagions.” The project will determine “the critical mass (tipping point) of social contagions by studying their “digital traces” in the cases of “the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the 2011 Russia Duma elections, the 2013 Nigerian fuel subsidy crisis and the 2013 Gazi park protests in Turkey.” [18]

In Ahmed’s estimation, such research initiatives, including the Pentagon’s war-gaming of environmental activism and protest movements intimate that National Security Agency’s “mass surveillance is partially motivated to prepare for the destabilizing impact of coming environmental, energy and economic shocks.” [19] In this scenario, influencing individual affect to the point of creating emotional contagions that libidinally charge the flowing circuits of social media opens up possibilities for rechanneling, redirecting, and reanimating the political trajectory of social and cultural dissent.

Probably not wishing to be outdone by such experimental initiatives in biometric conditioning and acting at the behest of the National Security Agency, Canada’s secret surveillance agency–Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC)–recently performed a proof of (surveillance) concept on unsuspecting travellers at a Canadian airport. Without prior notification or permission, CSEC swept up all WiFi communication at the airport and then proceeded to track the electronic communications of the target population over a two-week period. In a previously secret document (“IP Profiling Analytics & Mission Impacts”) [20] brought to public visibility by Snowden’s revelations, the report by the Canadian surveillance unit described as “Tradecraft Developer,” operating as part of CSEC’s Network Analysis Network, began their experiment in data vivisectioning with a overall analytic concept: “begin with single seed WiFi IP address of international airport” and “assemble set of user IDs seen on network address over two weeks.” As with many things, it is remarkable what a rich harvest of metadata a “single seed WiFi address” will provide. Not simply “going backward in time” to “uncover roaming infrastructure of host city (hotels, conference centers, WiFi hotspots, mobile gateways, coffee shops) but also “clusters (that) will resolve to other Airports!” and, in fact, as the report boasts, the Tradecraft Developer “can then take seeds from these airports and repeat to cover the whole world.” [21] Impatient with the “limited aperture” of data, with the fact that there is “little lingering at airports” with “arrivals using phone, not WiFi,” and with the even greater, and obvious, technical limitation that “Canadian ISPs team with US email majors, losing travel coverage,” the Tradecraft Developer quickly seems to have left the targeted airport behind in favor of a more ambitious project, specifically to perform a two-week data sweep of a mid-size Canadian city. Here, the data farming language of “valid and invalid seeds” with their digital bounty of geo information was used to trace the “profiled/seed IP location” and all its seemingly existential circumlocutions or, what’s the same, its “hopped-to IP location.” [22]

While the final report is surrounded by all the rhetorical seriousness of something labeled “top secret” and is written in the positivistic prose emblematic of networks analytics with all the opaque (geo-collaboration) systems administrator language of “tipping and queuing,” the overall significance of the report is purely literary. It is a children’s game gone wrong. With the aim of “providing real-time alerts of events of interest,” the Tradecraft Developers proposed a network analytics problem, in effect a children’s game called “Needle in the Haystack.” [23] In this scenario, what is described as the “Tradecraft Problem Statement” envisions a scenario wherein a kidnapper from a rural area travels, for reasons left unexplained, to the city to make ransom calls. So, the stipulated questions: If authorities know the time of the ransom call, can they find the needle in the haystack? Can they “discover the kidnapper’s IP ID/device? The network solution is obvious: take an actual Canadian city of 300,000 people hostage, at least in terms of their electronic communications over a 40-hour period; eliminate all IDs that repeat over this period; “leaving,” as the Tradecraft Developer report happily concludes “just the kidnapper (if he was there).” Less a powerful demonstration of Borges’s famous fable of the map before the territory, the real “top secret” of the Needle in a Haystack game is that there is no secret. Unlike a children’s game that includes elements of chance, contains a necessary sense of suspense and, just as often, emphasizes playful collaboration among participants in real-time, this network analytic version of the game of Needle in the Haystack leaves nothing to chance (the model is a closed domain of electronic information), limits the boundaries of the real to eliminate suspense, and functions to eliminate playful time by speeding up the solution by means of a just-announced Big Data computer program (CARE: Collaborative Analytics Research Environment) where, as the Tradecraft programmers boast, “run-time for hop-profiles (is) reduced from 2+ hours to several seconds allow(ing) for tradecraft to be profitably productized.” [24] In other words, a fast run-time, Big Data computer simulation model masquerading as a children’s game that has gone terribly wrong: no unpredictability, no mystery, no playful temporality, and no needle.

Shadows of Data, Shadows of Suffering

Electronic Shadows

Bodies always have their shadowy doubles. Definitely not in the darkness of the night when the sun falls below the earthly horizon and is replaced by the different cycles of the moon, but in the clarity of a sunny day and, with it, the often unnoticed splitting of the world into bodies and their accompanying shadows. Consciousness of this ancient story of bodily shadows, with its premonitions of a fatal instability in the accepted framework of the real, has sometimes led to strangely interesting mythic possibilities. Cinematic scenes of rebellious shadows that suddenly refuse their preordained role of subordination to the governing signifier of the body in favor of striking out on their own–shadows without bodies. Or, just the reverse, bodies stripped of shadows–possessed bodies that clearly mark their break from the terrestrial register of the human by their astonishing failure to cast a shadow no matter how intense the flares of the sun.

We mention this strange contortion in the story of the body and its shadow as a way of drawing into a greater illumination those new electronic shadows that accompany the emergence of digital bodies. Every critique of contemporary surveillance has made much of the fact that the digital body always leaves electronic traces, that there is no activity in the wired world that does not accumulate clouds of data, no form of net connectivity that escapes electronic notice, and consequently no digital self that does not possess its very own electronic shadow. In all the discussion by intelligence agencies concerning tactics of mass surveillance, whether upstream (harvesting data from compliant telecommunication companies) or downstream (tapping fiber optic cables), constant emphasis is focused on creating individual profiles based on a (digital) self’s “pattern of life.” In other words, mass surveillance as also about an aesthetic act of drawing into visibility those electronic shadows that silently and invisibly accompany the digital self. Here, in a clear sign that, with the emergence of the real-time and networked space of the digital, we have decisively moved beyond the limitations of the daily cycles of the sun and moon, electronic shadows require no galactic movements of planets and the stars for their appearance. Never disappearing with the darkness, never changing their early shape with the angle of the sun, electronic shadows always rise to meet the digital self. Triggered by connectivity, governed by codes, archived in data banks, tabulated by power, the electronic shadow cast by the digital self will, in the end, outlast its human remainder. A future history, then, of electronic shadows of data that cling to the human bodies that activate them but, for all that, remain at one remove from their earthly origins.

With this inevitable result: just as novelists, short story writers, poets, and cinematographers have always suspected in their creative fables of bodies without shadows and outlaw shadows that refuse any bodily presence, the unfolding story of electronic shadows is inherently unstable. It takes an immense regime of technocratic intelligibility to maintain tight, disciplined cohesion between digital bodies and their electronic shadows. The many cases of mistaken (digital) identity indicate perhaps a more primary confusion in electronic shadow land, that point where electronic shadows sometimes exchange bodily identities, slipping immediately beyond the boundaries of one bodily tag to another with the least apparent difference. And sometimes, too, electronic shadows actually get lost–flash drives are misplaced or stolen, data banks suddenly shut down, power shortages introduce often imperceptible breaks in the data symmetry necessary for cohesive electronic shadows. In this case, to the extent that mass surveillance is probably less about earthly bodies than the electronic shadows cast by the “pattern of life,” that pattern of life already has about it a fatal catachresis, an accumulating pattern of errors that may speak more, in the end, to the truth of a system already seemingly out of control.

But still, for all that, electronic shadows sometimes contain traces of blood and human suffering. As much a sign of prohibition as affirmation, a signifier of exclusion as well as inclusion, a code of disavowal as much as avowal, electronic shadows are an enduring sign of the traditional meaning of surveillance, namely vigilance concerning who belongs and does not belong to the political community. Inscribed with data memories, always sleepless, clinging to the digital self like a cloud that will not disperse, electronic shadows precede actual bodily presence, signaling in advance whether the gated sensors of the state should impede or facilitate our passage. For those bodies chosen to be impeded, it is their electronic shadow that first betrays them to flights of rendition, life lived within the domestic penal cage of security certificates, forced deportation, indefinite detention, or the limbo of being held stateless at all the border stations of the world. When surveillance assumes the ghostly form of an electronic shadow, bodily presence is in permanent exile from time and space, prematurely cut off from that indispensable demand that marks the beginning again and again of individual singularity as much as human solitude, namely the ability to not account fully for its actions, intentions, or desires.

Notes
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[1] Kashmir Hill, “NSA’s Utah Data Center Suffers New Round of Electrical Problems,” Forbes.com, http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2013/10/17/nsas-utah-data-center-suffers-new-round-of-electrical-problems/ (accessed June 19, 2014).

[2] Howard Berkes, “Amid Data Controversy, NSA Builds Its Biggest Data Farm,” National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/2013/06/10/190160772/amid-data-controversy-nsa-builds-its-biggest-data-farm (accessed June 19, 2014).

[3] Jamshid Ghaz Askar, “NSA spy center: Unsettling details emerge, but director denies allegations,” Deseret News, http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865552597/NSA-spy-center-Unsettling-details-emerge-but-director-denies-allegations.html?pg=all (accessed June 19, 2014).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Berkes, “Amid Data Controversy.”

[6] Ed Pilkington, “Washington Post releases four new slides from NSA’S Prism presentation,” Guardian Online (June 30, 2014), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/30/washington-post-new-slides-prism (accessed January 22, 2014).

[7] T.C. Sotteck, “New PRISM slides: more than 100,000 ‘active surveillance targets,’ explicit mention of real-time monitoring,” The Verge (June 29, 2013), http://www.theverge.com/useres/tcosettek (accessed July 16, 2014).

[8] Natasha Singer, “When No One is Just a Face in the Crowd,” The New York Times, Sunday, February 2, 2014, p.3.

[9] Bill Chappell, “New Electronic Sensors Stick to Skin as Temporary Tattoos,” National Public Radio (August 11, 2011), http://www.npr.org/Blogs/the-two-way/2011/08/11/139554014/new-electronic-sensors-stick-to-skin-as-temporary-tattoos (accessed June 11, 2014).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Alyson Shontell, “The Next Twenty Years are Going to Make the Last Twenty Years Like We Accomplished Nothing in Tech,” Business Insider (June 16, 2014), http://www.businessinsider.com/the-future-of-technology-will-pale-the-previous-20-years-2014-6 (accessed July 8, 2014).

[13] Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004), p. 310.

[14] Ibid, pp. 278-279.

[15] For a theorization of the virtual class–its genealogy, alliances, ideology, and practices, see Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993).

[16] Adam D.I. Kramer, J.E.Guillory, J.T. Hancock, “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.24, http://www.pnas.org/content/111/24/8788.full (accessed January 3, 2014).

[17] Cory Doctorow, “Facebook manipulation experiment has connection to DoD ’emotional contagion’ research,” BoingBoing (July 3, 2014), http://boingboing.net/2014/07/03/facebook-manipulation-experime.html (accessed December 20, 2014).

[18] Nafeez Amhed, “Pentagon preparing for mass civil breakdown,” Guardian Online (June 12, 2014), http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2014/jun/12/pentagon-mass-civil-breakdown (accessed January 12, 2014).

[19] Ibid.

[20] “IP Profiling Analytics & Mission Impacts–CBC,” Top secret report by Tradecraft Developer, CSEC–Network Analysis Centre (May 10, 2012), www.cbc.ca/news2/pdf/airports_redacted.pdf (accessed December 15, 2014).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

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