Lifting the mask
On liberty, on privacy, on Substack
Eight years ago, my life began.
I was a climbing careerist in the American Intelligence Community, a former CIA officer and NSA contractor, until I discovered that my work — and the work of my generation — had, in secret, been turned toward the construction of history’s first truly global system of mass surveillance: a machine dedicated to building perfect and permanent records of our private lives.
I quietly showed documents detailing the full scope of this new architecture of oppression to my colleagues, who were first alarmed, and then filled with a sense of resignation: what can you do?
And so it was eight years ago this week that I left my partner, my family, and my country behind to reveal evidence of this malfeasance to journalists I'd never met but had to trust.
As part of this process, I also revealed my identity.
Nothing could have prepared me for the moment when [Laura Poitras] pointed her camera at me, sprawled out on my unmade bed in a cramped, messy room that I hadn’t left for the past ten days. I think everybody has had this kind of experience: the more conscious you are of being recorded, the more self-conscious you become. Merely the awareness that there is, or might be, somebody pressing record on their smartphone and pointing it at you can cause awkwardness, even if that somebody is a friend. [...] In a situation that was already high-intensity, I stiffened. The red light of Laura’s camera, like a sniper’s sight, kept reminding me that at any moment the door might be smashed in and I’d be dragged off forever. And whenever I wasn’t having that thought, I kept thinking about how this footage was going to look when it was played back in court. I realized there were so many things I should have done, like putting on nicer clothes and shaving. Room-service plates and trash had accumulated throughout the room. There were noodle containers and half-eaten burgers, piles of dirty laundry and damp towels on the floor. It was a surreal dynamic. Not only had I never met any filmmakers before being filmed by one, I had never met any journalists before serving as their source. The first time I ever spoke aloud to anyone about the US government’s system of mass surveillance, I was speaking to everyone in the world with an Internet connection. In the end, though, regardless of how rumpled I looked and stilted I sounded, Laura’s filming was indispensable, because it showed the world exactly what happened in that hotel room in a way that newsprint never could.
That was how I described how I felt in my memoir Permanent Record. Today, when I re-read that passage, and when I replay that old clip, I have a curious sense of distance: it's me, but also it's not. I still stand by the words, yet I can't help but acknowledge that I'm always standing at a different remove, contemplating the past from a new perspective, determined by all that has changed in the time that's elapsed. Between the clip and the memoir, my girlfriend Lindsay and I were reunited and married. Between the memoir and the present, we became parents to a son. Between that child and the writing of this sentence, I developed a new appreciation for time.
Though my relationship to time fluctuates, the gravamen of my disclosures remains constant. In the past eight years, the depredations of surveillance have merely become more entrenched, with the capabilities that used to be the province of governments now in the hands of private companies, too, which employ them to track and tether us and attenuate our freedoms. This enduring danger, this compounding danger, is one of the reasons I've decided to lift my voice again — adding a new page to my "permanent record"...one to which I hope you subscribe.
Since 2013, it feels as though the world has accelerated, when really only the rate of opinion has — through the sheer speed and volume of bite-sized algorithmically "curated" social media. On Facebook, and especially on Twitter, plots and characters appear and vanish in moments, imparting emotions, but never lessons, because who has time for those? The only thing that most of us manage to take away from social media, besides the occasional chuckle, is an updated roster of villains — the daily roll-call of transgressors and transgressions.
This is the reality of the fully commercialized mainstream internet: our exposure to an indigestible mass of shortest-form opinions that are purposefully selected by algorithms to agitate us on platforms that are designed to record and memorialize our most agitated, reflexive responses. These responses are, in turn, elevated in proportion to their controversy to the attention — and prejudice — of the crowd. In the resulting zero-sum blood sport that public reputation requires, combatants are incentivized to occupy the most conventionally defensible positions, which reduces all politics to ideology and splinters the polis into squabbling tribes. The products of the irreconcilable differences this process produces are nothing more than well-divided "audiences," made available to the influence of advertisers, and all that it cost us was the very foundation of civil society: tolerance.
For this reason, I'd like to do my part in encouraging a return to longer forms of thinking and writing, which provide more room for nuance and more opportunity for establishing consensus or, at the very least, respecting a diversity of perspective and, you know, science.
I want to revive the original spirit of the older, pre-commercial internet, with its bulletin boards, newsgroups, and blogs — if not in form, then in function.
The utopianism of these blogs might seem as quaint today as the sites' graphics (and glamorous MIDI audio), but whatever those outlets lacked in sophisticated design, they more than made up for in curiosity and intelligence and in their fostering of originality and experimentation. They were, when it comes down to it, not curated and templated "platforms" so much as direct expressions of the creative primacy of the individual.
One history of the Internet — and I'd argue a rather significant one — is the history of the individual's disempowerment, as governments and businesses both sought to monitor and profit from what had fundamentally been a user-to-user or peer-to-peer relationship. The result was the centralization and consolidation of the Internet — the true y2k tragedy. This tragedy unfolded in stages, a gradual infringement of rights: users had to first be made transparent to their internet service providers, and then they were made transparent to the internet services they used, and finally they were made transparent to one another. The intimate linking of users' online personas with their offline legal identity was an iniquitous squandering of liberty and technology that has resulted in today's atmosphere of accountability for the citizen and impunity for the state. Gone were the days of self-reinvention, imagination, and flexibility, and a new era emerged — a new eternal era — where our pasts were held against us. Forever.
Everything we do now lasts forever... The Internet's synonymizing of digital presence and physical existence ensures fidelity to memory, identitarian consistency, and ideological conformity. Be honest: if one of your opinions provokes the hordes on social media, you're less likely to ditch your account and start a new one than you are to apologize and grovel, or dig in and harden yourself ideologically. Neither of those "solutions" is one that fosters change, or intellectual and emotional growth.
The forced identicality of online and offline lives, and the permanency of the Internet's record, augur against forgiveness, and advise against all mercy. Technological omniscience, and the ease of accessibility, promulgate a climate of censorship that in the so-called free world instantiates as self-censorship: people are afraid to speak and so they speak the party's words... or people are afraid to speak and so they speak no words at all...
Even the most ardent practitioners of cancel culture — which I've always read as an imperative: Cancel culture! — must admit that cancellation is a form of surveillance borne of the same technological capacities used to oppress the vulnerable by patriarchal, racist, and downright unkind governments the world over. The intents and outcomes might be different — cancelled people are not sent to camps — but the modus is the same: a constant monitoring, and a rush to judgment.
If this past year-and-change has taught us anything, it's how interconnected we all are — a bat coughs and the world gets sick. Vaccines aside, our greatest weapon for defeating Covid-19 has been the mask, an accessory I'd formerly appreciated only a symbol: masks make secret, masks hide, masks cover, in protests as in pandemics.
The social value of the mask has been made clear: they're not deceptive so much as protective, of ourselves and of others too. Masking is a mutual responsibility, a symbol of common identity founded in a common hope. This is the very same rhetoric I've always employed about the use of technological masks: about the use of Tor networks, virtual private networks, encryption keys, and allied technologies that protect our identities online. Over the past eight years, the number of people — of organizers, protestors, journalists, and regular people — who've adopted these masks has been heartening, but then so too has been the courage of those who speak unmasked, in situations where their speech demands the authentication of experience. As with so-called public health, so with the health of the body politic: to drop the mask requires confidence in one's fellow citizens, and in the system in general. From the blue checks to the red pills, we all want to be free to speak as ourselves, and to be recorded as ourselves, without fear of persecution, and we all want to be able to decide what that freedom means, to ourselves and to our communities, however defined. My family back home in the States, along with many of my friends in the States and in Europe, are lucky enough to now be going around unmasked, but millions — mostly in the world's poorer countries — have no such privilege. It's here that the analogy with speech freedoms comes into starkest relief: until the air is clear for all, it's clear for none.
For the past eight years, I've spoken out in defense of speech freedoms on various platforms, but none has been a home. I've been edited by editors, moderated by moderators, crammed into newspaper and magazine columns next to the ads for fancy wristwatches; I've had my thoughts contorted by character-limitations and tripped-up by threads, even before they were taken out of context and misinterpreted, accidentally and willfully. Platforms should ensure a writer has full control over, and full ownership of, their intellectual property, so I'm glad to help give this one a fighting chance.
Readers of this column should expect weekly posts dealing with civil liberties and technology, in addition to commentary on the worlds of whistleblowing and leaking, a series on false conspiracies (QAnon) v. true conspiracies (debt), news roundups, and various reviews and how-tos, for good measure. Subscribers will have access to audio versions of many of the pieces, as well as to a series of podcasts, featuring conversations between myself and friends and allies and occasionally, yes — in the spirit of this space — even some folks I disagree with.