The Emergence of the Universal Surveillance State

31 March 2014



The national security state came of age during the Cold War, under perpetual threat of a sudden, catastrophic nuclear exchange that could terminate civilization almost instantaneously at any time, and which was therefore an era of institutionalized paranoia. In the national security state, the response to perpetual danger was perpetual vigilance — one often heard the line, the price of peace is eternal vigilance, which has been attributed to many difference sources — and this vigilance primarily took the form of military preparedness. The emergence of the surveillance state as the natural successor to the national security state is a development of the post-Cold War period, and is partly the result of a changed threat narrative, but it is also partly a response to technological advances. During the Cold War the technological resources to construct a universal surveillance state did not yet exist; today these technological resources exist, and they are being systematically implemented.

In the universal surveillance state, the state takes on the role of panopticon — a now-familiar motif originating in the thought of English Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, but brought to wide attention in the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault (cf. A Flock of Drones) — which has profound behavioral implications for all citizens. It is well known not only to science but to even the most superficial observer of human nature that people tend to behave differently when they know they are being watched, as compared to when they believe themselves to be unobserved. The behavioral significance of universal surveillance is that of putting all citizens on notice that they are being observed at all times. In other words, we are all living inside the panopticon at all times.

Rather than the rational reconstruction of the state, this is the perceptual reconstruction of the state, in which all citizens have a reason to believe that they are under surveillance at all times, and at all places as well, including within the confines of their homes. The tracking of electronic telecommunications — today, primarily cell phone calls and internet-based communication — means that the state reaches in to the private world of the individual citizen, his casual conversations with friends, relatives, colleagues, and neighbors, and monitors the ordinary business of life.

In order to effectively monitor the ordinary business of life of the presumptively “typical” or “average” citizen, the state security monitors must develop protocols for the observation and analysis of this vast body of data that will differentiate the “typical” or “average” citizen from the citizen (or resident, for that matter) who is to be the object of special surveillance. In other words, the total surveillance state must develop an algorithm of normalcy, in contrast to which the pathological is defined — the “normal” and the “pathological” are polar concepts which derive their meaning from their contrast with the opposite polar concept. Any established pattern of life that deviates from the normalcy algorithm would be flagged as suspicious. Even if such flagging incidents fail to reveal criminality, disloyalty, or other behaviors stigmatized by the state, such examples can be used to further refine the algorithm of normalcy in order to rule out the “noise” of the ordinary business of life in favor of the “signal” of pathological behavior patterns.

Those with a hunger for conformity will perhaps interpret a descriptive algorithm for the identification of normalcy as a prescriptive guide to a life that will not attract the attention of the authorities. Many, of course, will give no time to the thought of surveillance. There will be others, however, who are neither indifferent nor conformist, but who will court if not provoke surveillance. And just as the algorithm of normalcy gives a recipe for conformity, it also gives a recipe for non-conformity. Spectacular instances of non-conformity to an algorithm of normalcy will invite surveillance, and this will have potentially unexpected consequences.

One can only wonder how long it will take for individuals hungry for either fame or notoriety — and not caring which one results from their actions — manage to hack the pervasive surveillance state, pinging the system to see how it responds, and using this same system against itself to catapult some individual into the center of national if not global media attention. One could, I imagine, obtain a number of cell phones, land lines, email addresses, and begin using them to exchange suspect information, and eventually be identified as a special surveillance target. If this activity resulted in an arrest, such an experience could be used by the arrested individual as the basis for a book contract or a legal suit about compromised civil rights. Indeed, if the perpetrator was sufficiently clever they could construct the ruse in such a manner as to implicate “sensitive” individuals or to cast serious doubt upon the claims made by law enforcement officials. Such a gambit might be milked for considerable gain.

Given the currency of celebrity in our society, it is nearly inevitable that such an event will occur, whether motivated by the desire for fame, infamy, wealth, power, or self-aggrandizement. Just as Dostoyevsky wrote in a note appended to the beginning of his short story, “Notes from Underground,” (a passage of some interest to me that I previously quoted in An Interview in Starbucks), such individuals must exist in our society:

The author of the diary and the diary itself are, of course, imaginary. Nevertheless it is clear that such persons as the writer of these notes not only may, but positively must, exist in our society, when we consider the circumstances in the midst of which our society is formed. I have tried to expose to the view of the public more distinctly than is commonly done, one of the characters of the recent past. He is one of the representatives of a generation still living.

The overt celebrity state and the covert surveillance state are set to collide, perhaps spectacularly, the more power that is organized around the universal surveillance state. Given the fungibility of power, the political power represented by the universal surveillance state can be readily translated into other forms of power, such as wealth and fame, and the more political power that in concentrates in the universal surveillance state, the riper is this universal surveillance state to being used against its express intention. In other words, the attempt to turn the state into a hard target through universal surveillance, turns the state into a soft target for attacks that exapt the surveillance regime for unintended ends.

Politicians, while savvy within their own metier, like anyone else, can be woefully naïve in other areas of life, which virtually guarantees that, at the very moment when they believe themselves to secured themselves by way of the implementation of a total surveillance regime, they are likely to be blindsided by a completely unprecedented and unanticipated exaptation of their power by another party with an agenda that is so different that it is unrecognizable as a threat by those who study threats to national security. In the way that hackers sometimes cause mayhem and damage for the pure joy of stirring up a ruckus, hackers of the total surveillance state may be motivated by ends that have no place within the threat narratives of the architects of the total surveillance state.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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