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Pacific Standard Magazine interviews Professor Torin Monahan, co-author of “SuperVision: An Introduction to Surveillance Society” about the National Security Administration data mining operation:


A Security Scholar Talks About the NSA Scandal

“They’ve established a Google for police and intelligence operations by siphoning off all the data that we’re producing through telecommunications and other forms of data production.”


NSA headquarters; oil on canvas. (PAINTING: JOY GARNETT/FLICKR)
June 11, 2013 • By Marc Herman • Leave a Comment

Last week’s explosive revelations of an extensive National Security Administration data mining operation initially revived the post-9/11 debate over how to balance privacy—particularly in the digital realm—with national security. In response to the leak, President Obama argued that the NSA program was an appropriate invasion of privacy, and operated under proper oversight. “You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society,” Obama said, according to wire reports. “There are trade-offs involved.”

This week, however, the story has turned away from that key debate, following the identification of the whistleblower. Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old Booz Allen contractor behind the story, has emerged as its central figure, replacing questions over the program itself with questions over Snowden: his motivations, his legal circumstances, and his character.

What about those “tradeoffs?” Whether the NSA program is too invasive, or just invasive enough, remains an unfinished national conversation. Certainly people care: among the telling reports out just today, copies of George Orwell’s famous novel of information control, 1984, have started flying off the shelves in the past few days.

To get at that question of balance, we spoke with Torin Monahan, co-author of SuperVision: An Introduction to the Surveillance Society. An associate professor of communications at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Monahan is also an editor of Surveillance and Society, an academic journal focused on “Surveillance Studies.” His research focuses on so-called “fusion centers,” the information-gathering nodes set up around the U.S. post 9/11, designed to aid information-gathering and -sharing among law enforcement and national security agencies. The centers have come under criticism for overstepping their authority.

Our email, our Web searches, our shopping, our driving records, our education and medical records. All these are now data that can be drawn upon in some kind of centralized way to construct a fine-grained representation of who we are.

In an hour-long discussion, Monahan covered topics including the legal framework for the NSA program, the cultural history of American snooping, and the role of private contractors – as well as companies like Facebook and Google – in the modern American data collection industry.

This discussion has been edited slightly for brevity and will be presented in two parts. Today, a look at what scholars are now calling a “surveillance society.” Tomorrow, the conversation continues with a profile of what kinds of data get mined, and what don’t – and why.

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