What Game of Thrones can teach us about PRISM, Verizon, and the NSA

“The storms come and go, the waves crash overhead, the big fish eat the little fish, and I keep on paddling.”
— Varys, Game of Thrones

In the TV show Game of Thrones, there is a character, Varys, who is the royal spymaster in Westeros. (There’s also a second person on the royal Small Council with a separate spy network, and it seems that much of the conflict in the show ultimately comes back to the two spymasters jostling for power behind the scenes.) In the last two decades or so of Westeros history, there has been great political upheaval. There was the final king of the Targaryen dynasty, the Baratheon king who successfully overthrew him, and then after his death the throne has been tightly controlled by the Lannister family through the previous king’s (nominal) son. Many people–nobles, warriors, commoners–died in each regime change; there are not very many constants between them. But the spymaster Varys is one of them. No matter who sits on the throne, he continues to hold his position of power.

Rulers come and go, but the spooks remain the same. The better that spies get at surveillance, the more a ruler needs the spies on their side. For otherwise the spies will have increasing ability to surveil the ruler–and how will they use what secrets they find?

How can we expect Congress to investigate or put limits on the NSA’s conduct when the NSA already has the power to read congressmembers’ email, to view their and their staff’s files, to see who they’ve been talking to and when? The American democratic experiment isn’t just suffering from an extensive case of ordinary corporate corruption and special interest capture–I suspect it’s also being stifled by a constant, tacit threat of blackmail. A few choice leaked emails, a compromising photo, the timing of stock sales–it’s not at all hard to ruin any human being, even model citizens. What would J. Edgar Hoover or Richard Nixon have done with access to all of Verizon’s customers’ call data and the vast amounts of personal information hoovered up by PRISM? Representatives of the NSA have, under oath, to Congress, denied having the surveillance abilities that we now know they have. With the degree of surveillance power offered by modern technology, cowardly corporate stewards of centralized data sinks, and elastic in-vogue interpretations of US constitutional and statutory limitations on this sort of thing, certain divisions of the executive branch are not just unaccountable to the United States citizenry–not even Congress can be expected to hold them to account either.

The United States is no republic. Not just because of the ways in which wealth and corporate power have warped our political process, but because of its transition to a surveillance society. What we may have to look forward to is rule by spies, rule by secrets. Cryptocracy, in every sense. One survives by being in the ruling bureaucracy’s good graces (one way or another)–or being technically savvy and tinfoil-hat-level paranoid enough to tiptoe between the streams of Big Data.

I know a thing or two about politics, but I’m too undiplomatic and unabashedly anti-authoritarian to play nice. I know how to program and run Linux part-time, but I’m no savvy sysadmin. If I can’t figure out how to keep my files and communications private, what hope does everybody else have? I am sincerely afraid for myself, my friends, and my country. I wish I knew what to do.

If there are some privacy-enhancing and/or decentralized alternatives to the services targeted by PRISM, or similar projects, that need some user-friendliness and design love, get in touch. I’m interested in helping.