This week we have looked at the three main elements of the NSA’s surveillance system: Bulk data collection and the construction of an index for all communications in the country, use of private companies to store and process the content of our domestic data, and partnerships with other government agencies at home and abroad. We have examined all of these elements to so that we can try and judge the NSA’s surveillance system based on how it is constructed rather than by the motives and ideals of those currently using it. Now that we have examined the components, it is time to look at the bigger picture.

Technology of Power

Wholesale collection of data, use of private companies as data refineries, and partnerships of mutual convenience with other government surveillance agencies. Those are the functional components of the NSA system, the bits of code out of which it is built. What does that tell us about the system as a whole? We know that tapping into fiber optic lines naturally leads to wholesale data collection. We know that during wholesale data collection it is difficult or impossible to tell just whose data is being collected. We know that possessing all of the data turns what were once external checks and balances, like the prohibition on the NSA collecting US citizen data, into matters of self-policing and internal procedure design. We also know that, given all of this for a decade, the NSA has sought to increase how much data on US citizens they can search, radically increase how long they can keep data, and expand partnerships with groups that can volunteer information for the system that is free of any regulations. Now that we know that, we can ask the real question: is this going to be the kind of system we use to police democratic societies for the rest of our lives?

Before you decide, take a minute and watch this talk. The speaker, Malte Spitz, is a member of the German Parliament and used the German freedom of information laws to get a copy of all the “metadata” that his phone company stored about him. You can watch six months of his life reconstructed on that video. Everywhere he went, everyone he talked to, and all the groups he spoke with are captured in that metadata. There is power in being able to reconstruct someone’s life like that. Being able to reconstruct everyone’s lives at once is not just powerful, it is the kind of technology that could keep a government in power. Whether the NSA system was built to chase down terrorists or to disrupt political dissent does not matter. The power of the system matters and how much power we are comfortable giving to the secret operators of such a system matters.

In our names the US government is building a new kind of surveillance system, one that upends all the laws meant to regulate such activity and that is tied directly into the internet connections that will be the primary communication infrastructure for the rest of our lives. We have perhaps the best opportunity we will ever get to examine the actions taken in our names and set new rules for how a democratic society governs itself in this area. Our deliberations and decisions will have wide ranging repercussions. As the price of technology continues to fall there will be many others capable of building similar systems and the choices we make now will set the standard of behavior when that happens.

If we push back and we decide that this kind of monitoring is incompatible with a democratic society, our position as the central hub of the global internet means that we can hold that line for the next generation. If we move in the other direction and commit the center of the network to constant monitoring and recording, what will we say when those same tools are used to prop up the next “Axis of Evil” or suppress the next Arab Spring?

In the technology community “code is law” is said as a reminder that our technologies are governed not by our intentions but by the way they are put together. It is also sometimes spoken in a hopeful note because, while code may be law, we write the code. We determine how our technology is built. It can be hard and it can be complicated, but we need to do it because, if we don’t do it right, someone else will do it wrong.