Geek Chic: NCIS-LA's winsome techies 'Eric' and 'Nell' are so busy capturing the top-rating show's viewers' hearts that their constant breaching of citizens' civil rights and privacy passes, if not unnoticed, then, at the very least, unreproved. These, after all, are the people who stand between us and the 'evil-doers'. Against such powerful inoculations of popular culture, CIA whistle-blower, Edward Snowden's, revelations about the PRISM surveillance system are unlikely to spark outrage from more than the usual civil liberties suspects.
EDWARD SNOWDEN knows his geopolitics. Where better to seek refuge than in China – the nation most likely to shatter the five fingers of the Anglo-Saxon fist? For the moment, however, the former CIA technician and whistle-blower must be hoping that Hong Kong can hide him from the Anglo-Saxons’ five-eyed “PRISM”.
No easy task – as Mr Snowden himself admits: “I could be rendered by the CIA, I could have people come after me, or any of their third party partners – they work closely with a number of other nations … You can’t come forward against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk. Because they’re such powerful adversaries that no one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you – they’ll get you in time.”
All of which makes The Bourne Identity read more like a handbook than a thriller. And why Nicky Hager, the man to whom so many of New Zealand’s whistle-blowers have taken their secrets, describes Mr Snowden as “a brave man”.
But, does any of it matter? Will the world even be surprised – let alone shocked – at the extraordinary reach of the US National Security Agency’s panoptic surveillance app – PRISM? Isn’t it possible that the citizens of the Anglo-Saxon powers: the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; far from applauding Mr Snowden’s courage, will condemn him for choosing not to stand with us – but with the terrorists?
It is, after all, the Anglo-Saxon nations which provide the biggest audiences for television series like 24 and NCIS. The heroes of these top-rating shows (both of which grew out of post-9/11 collaboration between Hollywood and the US national security agencies) are presented to us as the exemplars of courage and decency.
Whether it be 24’s Jack Bauer or NCIS’s Special Agent Jethro Gibbs, the message delivered to Anglo-Saxon viewers around the world is simple and compelling: “The US Government has got our back. These are the good guys who stand between us and the evil-doers.”
In every episode we witness these “good guys” – or their geeky side-kicks – routinely hacking into people’s computer hard-drives and tapping into their phone conversations/records. Indeed, these techno-savvy youngsters seem to inhabit a global panopticon from which nothing and no one can hide. Every CCTV camera is at their disposal and every GPS micro-chip ready to turn state’s evidence.
The simple cry of “Federal Agents!” grants these heroes warrantless entry to anybody’s property. When outraged suspects demand their rights, our good guys exchange knowing glances and ask them if they’ve read the Patriot Act. And, for those who refuse to co-operate there is always the failsafe threat of a one-way ticket to sunny Guantanamo Bay.
Fifty years ago, any agency wielding such totalitarian powers would have been listed among the enemies of freedom. That Americans are now quite comfortable with fictional good guys who sound and act like Soviet-era thugs is a measure of just how much Al Qaida took from the United States on 11 September 2001.
And not only from the United States. Thirty-six years ago Rob Muldoon’s plans to expand the surveillance powers of the Security Intelligence Service were met with huge demonstrations in all the main centres.
No such protests greeted the legislation which has, over the course of the last 12 years, dangerously extended the surveillance powers of the state. It’s as if agents Bauer and Gibbs have convinced us that: “If we have nothing to hide then we have nothing to fear.”
But, as Mr Snowden says: “Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded ... [I]t’s getting to the point where you don’t have to have done anything wrong you simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody – even from a wrong call. And then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinise every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis to derive suspicion from an innocent life.”
Because, as the civil liberties lawyer, Tim McBride, observes: “[W]e do have something to hide, not because it is criminal or even shameful, but simply because it is private.”
The details of our lives belong to us – not the GCSB. We surrender the right “not to be known against our will” – at our peril.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 June 2013.