Are You Listening?
- By Avital Balwit
“Are you listening, NSA?” “Can you hear me Mark Zuckerberg?” “Are you there Bezos?” At some point, these went from internet-era jokes to truisms, from mocking a conspiracy theory to acknowledging the status quo. While it may not be by these specific actors, most of us accept that we can be listened to—and sometimes are.
One particularly egregious example of this spying comes from the story of Project Pegasus. Over the past few months, a group of NGOs and investigative journalists broke the story that governments are using a powerful spyware called Pegasus to target activists, journalists, and opposition leaders. The spyware can infect phones and record calls, access messages, photos and location, and most eerily, turn on a phone’s camera and microphone to secretly film and record its owner. Pegasus is delivered to a phone through “no click exploits” like a missed Whatsapp call, meaning the phone’s owner can fall victim without even needing to click a phishing link. The software was developed by Israeli firm NSO group and has been around— in various forms—since at least 2016.
When I heard about Pegasus, it seemed deeply familiar. In my short story “Bird Girl” written before I learned of NSO, an unknown presence monitors citizens through their phones. We do not know if it is the state or a private company. We do not know how long it has been going on or what percentage of the population loves or hates it. It merely remains in the background, obfuscating who or what is listening, and shaping the actions of everyone involved.
Pegasus brings up two of my key concerns about surveillance: the blending of public and private surveillance, and the way pervasive surveillance shapes our sense of self.
How much does it matter whether it is the state or a private company monitoring us? It used to be that the capacity to surveil someone was expensive and difficult; it required spies, cut-open letters, and, later on, complex wiretaps. But the cost of surveillance has been falling. It has become accessible to private companies and even individuals. One concern about private surveillance is that it is done by an entity that is not representative of the will or values of those it surveils. If surveillance must be carried out, it should be done for reasons that the public agrees to, and by methods the public condones.
Companies are inherently unrepresentative—we don’t elect them. This can be mitigated slightly through our power to choose to interact with thatcompany, in that companies have competitors. If one becomes too powerful, we could boycott it, write to our legislators, and perhaps bring antitrust or consumer protection suits. The company’s competitors might capitalize on its fall from grace and take its place, conforming instead to different privacy norms. This is, of course, an idealized version of how one could respond to a misbehaving private surveiller.
Similarly, governments are not necessarily, or even usually, representative. Many of the governments using NSO’s software are autocratic, with no pretensions of citizen input and involvement. Technology can insulate governments and allow them to become even more unrepresentative, as technology often makes projects possible to achieve with minimal human involvement. Thus governments no longer need even the bare minimum “buy-in” from the officials who execute their projects. Technology strengthens and broadens the government’s reach even as it reduces the number of actors necessary to achieve its goals. And unlike companies, governments lack competitors. Within each nation, we are largely saddled with our current regime. Of course, if we are lucky, we can vote to change it, run for office, pressure our legislators, and if we are unlucky and live in a less representative state, we can take more costly actions—like protesting or revolting.
This division between public and private surveillance is disappearing: Pegasus demonstrates a new model: private companies that collaborate with the surveillance duties of government, lending them the technological expertise they lack. Meanwhile, governments back these tools with their money and force.
Surveillance shapes our sense of self. What worries me most about surveillance is that it hinders our intellectual and moral development. In “Bird Girl,” the characters are notably thin. They have the personalities of those who have grown up watched, who understand that their relationships, employment, purchases, conversations, and hobbies are continuously scrutinized. They become cautious—not only in how they behave, but in who they are. When we feel surveilled, we think differently, write and read differently, live and become differently than we would in private. It drives us to become more conformist, even on a subconscious level.
You might be surprised to learn that I think surveillance is sometimes justified. Some harms are deeply worth preventing—for example, stopping terrorism, nuclear proliferation, or engineered pandemics. But the fact that some harms that are worth preventing does not justify all, or even most, surveillance. When we require surveillance, we should turn to the least invasive, most justifiable, and democratic and governable modes—and each use should face public and expert scrutiny.
For the rare cases where we must be surveilled, it should go both ways. We deserve to know what technologies our governments are using, what types of activities and groups of people they are watching, who they are contracting with, and why. In “Bird Girl,” the entity who is listening is never revealed. When Sasha’s access to cash is cut off, and they turn the brakes off to crash her electric scooter, she is unable to confront her opponents. This is an inequality we should strive to avoid. Those who use tools like Pegasus must be ready to publicly justify themselves—to their citizens, victims, and the world—and if these uses would not withstand that scrutiny, they should not be used at all.
AVITAL BALWIT is a writer from Portland, Oregon. She has short stories forthcoming in Lilith Magazine, Prairie Fire, and the Multispecies Cities anthology from Worldweaver Press. She won The Atlantic’s 2020 poetry contest. Her illustrated children’s book on octopus cognition will be published by Pop Up UK in Spring 2021. Avital is a Rhodes scholar studying political philosophy.