This is a paper about my efforts to continue being honest, both within myself and my professional work as a journalist, under the watchful stare of government agencies whose intentions, and even those of the agents themselves, are unknown to their subjects. Though delivered in a narrative arc, this story addresses the central question: How has digital surveillance changed the way I communicate with the world? I cannot speak for everyone, although I have spoken to White House Press Corps reporters who say their work is vetted by the administration before it is “allowed” to be printed. I have spoken to numerous professional journalists who insist on PGP email encryption but have nothing to report worth protecting. It is almost entirely a problem of access, and the constraints on that access are owed largely to the undeniable ubiquity of government surveillance. In many cases, sources simply cannot speak to journalists and cannot even set up preliminary interviews because their communications are constantly being monitored, highlighted and probed for treason. Therefore, I offer my personal experience as an insight into what will hopefully be recognizable to others who might find themselves in a similar situation. Likewise, I cannot deny the possibility I am truly alone in my conclusions, but I proceed under the assumption I am nothing special. There are countless journalists with one foot in the grave, and I dare not claim to be doing dangerous work. I think living presently under surveillance is dangerous enough, when moderate politics and noncommittal, reasonable philosophies are the guiding forces of the average person’s life, and yet are regarded by the state as dangerously radical. Reading my story, you might agree that apart from my specific proclivity for raising hell, there is nothing substantially original about my story, but instead uniquely American with respect to the growing threat of a new, domestic form of state terrorism touching each and every one of us: the surveillance state and the horrors of being misunderstood.
A child of the mid-1980s, I approached the age of reason in tandem with the 1989 introduction of the Internet, courtesy of Tim Berners-Lee. The hollow screech of our 28.8 baud, narrowband modem woke me up in the middle of the night, as my mother connected to an online chat-room. She invited me to sit down and ask the man on the Internet a question. It had never occurred to me that a computer could be used to communicate with another person, so I simply assumed that a computer provided a means of talking to God. I began to ask God questions: “How many termites could fit in the sun?” and “How will I die?” to which the man on the other end of the line responded, “How the hell should I know?” And so it began: The Internet is full of people, many of whom know nothing of termites in the sun. Ten years later, I started a website. MySpace had not been invented yet. I began writing rumors and libeling my high school teachers, shortly before the War on Freedom began on September 11, 2001. I was 15 years old. I had just started my first website on Yahoo! GeoCities called Weenus, Inc. It was an instant hit as the shock site featured every different type of page from close-up pictures of venereal disease, to homeless people shooting heroin in the gutters, and even short video clips of bestiality. Isn’t the Internet great! I thought. It offered everything TV could not. I even uploaded a video of myself defecating on my friend’s floor for a quick and easy laugh – what turned out later to be thousands of laughs when the entire school district learned about my work. While shocking images were fun, that wasn’t what I spent each night typing. I wrote up short stories about what it was like being a teenager adjusting to the suburbs, home life, and an all-white school where the kids wore North Face, the football team took prominence, and the 20 or so black kids gathered separately from the white students in a part of the hallway some kids tastefully referred to as “the ghetto corner.”
I was new in the Appalachian oasis town of Roanoke, Va., having just arrived from the backwoods of North Carolina, where I learned to love liberty. For a few years of my life, I was actually free from my mother’s discipline and enjoyed a total lack of responsibility. I had come out of poverty, living in a broken-down trailer with my father (you could see the dirt ground where parts of my floor had caved in), breaking into vacant houses, and getting suspended from school for supplying bombs to my classmates. Picture it: Bombs, in a school, and not a life was ruined. I was suspended for two days, allowed to return, and served a week of in-school suspension where I watched poor children eat carpenter’s glue out of the cabinet for fun. We were left totally unsupervised. Of course, that was before the entire nation suffered a complete nervous breakdown. I was a kid. This is what kids did, the counselor explained. Plus, they weren’t powerful bombs. It was harmless fun. Kid stuff.
On my website, I wrote about topics like, “How I Got Away With Skipping 60 Morning Classes” and “Why Cave Spring High School Is Fascist.” I wrote a piece about Dr. Martha Cobble being a racist hatemonger. The article was widely known but no one knew who wrote it. How’s that for anonymity? She was later disgraced and relieved from her position, probably because what I said was true, and the right people read the pamphlet. She said to a colleague she did not want to ‘turn the [marching] band program over to a nigger,’ and that is exactly what I wrote.
Then, they built a new high school—Hidden Valley High School—and shipped the richest, whitest kids over there, where county-supplied laptops flowed like water and everyone was the son or daughter of a Republican. Somehow I made the cut. The principal there, David Blevins, was incompetent, too, as I later wrote. I had a field day with him, as he formerly oversaw a junior high school and had no experience managing the greater needs of teenagers, and he later lost his job due to gross incompetence. It must have become clear who “sabotaged” Cave Spring’s administration, because Blevins had it out for me and my comrades, who by that time had created a network (my website, two others, and a “core” site known as The Titan Underground, named rebelliously after the official school paper that rejected our work). This was 2002, before MySpace really took off, so the administration had literally no experience mitigating the damage which began to unfold on their reputations, that seemed to come out of nowhere, out of this…Internet, which must be controlled. We named names, and the backlash was damaging, especially for those who were involved.
There was one crass English teacher who got pregnant and then attempted to sue us because we called her fat and lazy. She did not take issue with allegations of laziness—and she was fat before she got pregnant, so she had no case, as it turned out. Libel laws are such that she would have needed to prove she wasn’t fat, and she was not prepared to make any such case. I don’t think fat-shaming is OK, but we were teenagers, so almost nothing we did was OK. Around the same time, another friend in our burgeoning cyberterrorist network managed to hack the school’s website. He installed a midi player and forced all visitors to hear Black Sabbath. Every day they applied pressure, they thought they were winning, and then another article would go up: “David Blevins is a liar and a coward.” Clearly, they lost control of the situation and the school board caught wind of it. Not only that, we were becoming celebrities around the school. People who I didn’t know would come up to me praising my work, showing empathy for a personal piece I had written, or agreeing with arguments I made. One boy thanked me for writing what other people were thinking but were too afraid to say. One teacher called me: “Stupid. Smart, but stupid.” He smiled, and encouraged me to “lay in there, and give ’em hell.” That I did. In a single day, my personal website saw a 5,000 percent surge in traffic. That accounted for more than the number of students in attendance, plus faculty. How the principal in turn responded to pressure from the school board changed my worldview forever.
The principal, vice principal, two of their henchmen and a row of guidance counselors worked together to identify us, and they forced us to talk with outside drug abuse counselors. A woman came in and spoke with us who we had never seen before, and we never saw again. She asked us all the same questions like, “Isn’t it nice to get high once in a while?” and “Haven’t you ever done that?” The creepiest question was when she asked who, among us, liked to do drugs. “Tell me some of your friends who you think are doing drugs,” she asked us. “Online, you said you like getting stoned. What did you mean by that?” We laughed in her face and denied everything. But I was young. By the end of my talk with her, I was actually convinced she wanted to know where she could score a dime-bag. I felt bad I couldn’t help her, I thought to myself. I only knew where to find the lime, hydroponically grown stuff with red-orange hairs.
When that plan failed, they called our parents in to show them our personal websites. With our various works printed and fanned out across a six-foot table, they manipulated our parents, group by group. Guidance counselors offered their interpretations of my work, and they told my mother if she did not force me to take down the site, then the school would have no other choice but to have me committed to a three-day psychological evaluation, during which time I would be hooked up to electrodes monitoring my brainwave activity, to determine exactly what kind of thought criminal I am. They said once admitted, for society’s protection, I would not legally be allowed to leave. All for writing a few jokes at their expense! They said I must be crazy to write controversial things because “what you write on the Internet doesn’t go away.” This was right before graduation. They spoke to my mother as if they caught me right before I was about to shoot up the school. Mom caved because she did not want to see her son hooked up to machines like some psychopathic criminal. I got angry and I took the deletion of my websites really hard. I mostly took it out on myself. Broken and directionless, I later flunked out of college, fell into alcoholism and drug abuse, and didn’t write a good thing for four years. Each time I started to write, I thought, ‘No, writing will just get me in trouble.’ Everything would get me in trouble, I believed, so I only wrote weak, impotent poetry. I moved back to my high school town, where I continued a pattern of drug abuse and continued to be a general disappointment to myself and my family.
That’s when I reconnected with B____, who ran The Titan Underground with me: B, whose site also was destroyed in the aftermath; B, who also could no longer write; B, whose family also was told that everything he writes on the Internet is devastatingly, life-ruiningly permanent. If only that were true…
Blevins later lost his job, but even today, that doesn’t satisfy us. In a world of truly permanent records, where everything you do and say is recorded by some machine somewhere, it feels like that was the last unrecorded fact of that decade, and it was so painful because it happened to us. If they really believed what goes onto the Internet lasts forever, they would not have bothered themselves with destroying our work. Right on the heels of 9/11, we graduated from high school, unprepared, into a world where all the rules we ever played by had changed.
Upon reconnecting with B, we instantly began writing again. It was like something took over, simultaneously compelling us to write, in spite of ourselves. But something was different: By 2008, we knew control efforts had spread. The “war of terror” had gone sour in the popular mind, but the technological fear and control apparatus onscreen grew meaner, slicker and more menacing than any shit-eating grin on a vice principal’s face ever looked. We found ourselves laughing, talking and writing again. We moved into the woods, started a fresh website (chronicle.su) and started writing. We laughed about the news. We laughed at ourselves. We laughed at our own destruction. What happened was we went back to a place where we could take nothing seriously. We took turns narrating every new piece of tabloid-style hysteria we could produce about Communist Bigfoot that no one would ever read. We built on one another’s widening distortions of every conspiracy theory that grew like weeds in our collective unconscious—we evolved to view the world as a computer simulation in which mind-controlling chemtrails criss-cross the sky and terror is the new peace. We created a new world in which conspiracy is truth, and conjecture is the new fact.
When we couldn’t be together, we were constantly bouncing hysterical, paranoid, delusional, treasonous ideas through Google chat. And then Google released Chrome. And then we purchased a .com, followed soon afterward by a week-long celebration of our first 100-hit day: Miley Cyrus sexting, our first success. We might see half a million readers in a single month now, but back then 100 hits was cause for celebration. Who would have guessed ‘Miley Cyrus’ would net us 100 different readers! What’s more is we could see what real people were searching and clicking on in real time. Then we began to ask ourselves: What else is recorded? Who else is watching?
The following day, B pulled up what was (at that time) a fresh picture of the NSA supercomputer being cooled by an underground grid of liquid helium pipes, capable of on-the-fly decryption and massive, unthinkable processing power. There was even talk of a quantum computer. It was no longer a bumbling idiot president or idiotic principal we had to contend with. We had a new administration to make fun of, and nobody was hitting it: The Obama Administration.
Based on research and many long, careful conversations, we always knew the government collected “everything” but I honestly had trouble believing it deep down. Sure, Google would retain our records and sell the data to Kraft Cheese and Amazon, but I remembered from a college course my professor praising Google for resisting government efforts to obtain records of Google users. I wanted to believe my email provider, whose corporate slogan once was “Don’t be evil” was honest and forthcoming with their customers. I needed to believe in the inherent good of megacorporations, just to feel a little peace of mind. But I was every bit as delusional as the people B and I satirized. What would the school, for example, have been able to accomplish with more than the public record? What could they have done with our private chats? That’s the future, of course, but we were no longer writing about school. There was a very thin, almost imagined membrane between corporations and the government. Google has long since dropped their slogan “Don’t be evil.” I recalled learning the definition of ‘hyperbole’ at the same time as we read 1984 in school. We were taught 1984 was hyperbolic.
I wrote a story about the NSA in 2008 that offered to sell readers a “spy package” of materials, like a laser-projected keyboard that prevents keylogging, and a USB-powered suicide device. That was the beginning of my intentionally public conversation about communicating in a surveillance state. The sad irony of any such “private” conversation about the surveillance state is that if you’re communicating electronically, the conversation is only private in the sense that it is taking place between two people. It is, however, being recorded, saved and cataloged for future use, if needed, by secret court order, and facilitated by tech firms such as Google, Apple and Microsoft. Our conversations, likes, personalities, and intentions are publicly owned to be used against the public when necessary. If there is a piece of technology in the room with a microphone or a camera on it, then however you use that device could be used to build a profile around you, especially if you are referenced by one of any number of watchlists, in which case there is a good chance the microphones and cameras are recording live. 1984 was only hyperbolic in the sense that the government would pay to install microphones in the grass. George Orwell never could have imagined how eagerly willing people would be to purchase their own personal microphones and pay a monthly fee to keep them spying.
In 2001, those planning periods were ours. The times when we discussed Titan Underground stories, security, hacking, and talking shit about our teachers and the government—all those conversations were between us and our friends. There is a kind of narcissism about thinking the government is watching me, and even today I acknowledge—or I hope—I’m not important enough to monitor, but it is not narcissistic to read the news and understand technology has long since reached a point where subjects of government spying no longer need to be singled out to be retroactively studied. Every conversation B and I ever had about our website, the news and the surveillance state has, rather inconveniently, taken place via computer. It’s all been recorded. Should we be considered enemies of the state, which everyone is to some degree, our private conversations are archived in a government database.
B said he believes it affects the way we talk in the same unremarkable sense that all of the world affects the way we talk but also as a more remarkable, ever-present threat or boundary.
“You can’t know what that boundary is,” B said. “But you know it’s there, and if you trespass, there will be instant consequences.”
B supposes the imaginary boundary deters thoughts “near the fringes,” so I put his theory to the test. I corralled him (unknowingly, because I am evil) and a colleague into an hour-long conversation over Skype about the possibility of armed revolution in the United States. Skype is known to cooperate with NSA surveillance programs, so if they’re recording, I wanted them to listen. It was more of a social experiment on myself to see how neurotic I’ve become, but also a test of the system. It was a bad test because I did not know what outcome I expected—there was no hypothesis—but I consider it a test all the same. Using every trigger word I know, I espoused every radical, reactionary point of view involving an armed resistance movement I could think of, and I delivered my arguments with gusto and conviction, seriously entertaining these ideas and talking the conversation out to its logical end. It went like this:
I opened the talk by expressing admiration for the Black Panthers, and remorse for Fred Hampton’s murder. I talked about the growing threat of militarized police and suggested we “gear up” in case we need to “fight back.” Halfway through the conversation, I literally asked my friends, “Do you think I’m going to be raided after this?” and, “How long before I get raided by the FBI?” And then we laughed and made jokes, like, “The rest of this conversation will now be spent covering our asses,” and “From now on, we’ll be sure to talk about the importance of nonviolent resistance.” I am still overcome by panic at times because in the back of my mind I know there is a recording of me in some archive asking, “What’s it going to take to put a gun in my hand, aiming it at police?” Is it being rewound and replayed? Is it sitting in some 30-day queue awaiting deletion? Is it going to be printed out and spread across a six-foot table in a courtroom before me and my lawyer? Or are common, everyday thought crimes simply ignored, pushed aside and disregarded in the bureaucratic pursuit of high-level political enemies?
I did not used to be afraid of expressing my own ideas. As a teenager, I did not worry about whether my jokes might be misconstrued by armed gunmen—state terrorists—who could legally storm into my home at any moment because they say they believe I really plan to take up arms against them or our corporate masters. But now, as a man, I feel more childish than ever, returning to the infantile notion there are some things the adults must not see. I know it is silly, but sometimes I cannot tell jokes within earshot of a cell phone. I cannot play with my own ideas as freely as I might play with the Angry Birds.
Update: Stormtroopers have not confiscated my computers yet. No one has asked to go through my cellphone. A scanning program published by the ACLU says my computer camera is not currently monitored by the NSA. But there is relay firmware built into my hard drive, so who can know for sure? It feels like an inevitability that as I grow my career as a journalist, I’ll run into the surveillance state in some capacity that could end up looking like that grisly episode of high school, where my work is splayed out and somehow used against me or my sources. “When you wrote that James Clapper should be hanged like the domestic terrorist that he is, what did you mean by that?” A no-knock raid could happen any morning. I could easily be arrested for conspiracy, made into an example as if to say, ‘Even if you’re careful, you’re messing with power.’ Some FBI agents did come around, though. They knew our work. They said they admired B’s writing. They said I’m not like “those shitbags at 4chan.” They acted like they didn’t know names they should have known. They wanted to see what we know. They were fishing, like guidance counselors, for evidence. With great consternation, I started doing journalism at the state capital. I cover the Fourth Amendment, whistleblower protections and Virginia Supreme Court hearings. When my ancient, mechanical cellphone camera began clicking at random, I knew I was messing with powerful people, so I’m careful not to point it at anyone I don’t want to die. I did take a picture of Va. Governor Terry McAuliffe with it, though, and I’m shooting a senator next week.
A Wired article [link no longer working] about the NSA and its new “spy center”
A New York Times article about how privacy vanishes online
An NPR debate on Internet/phone data surveillance and the Fourth Amendment
James Kenneth Galloway is a freelance journalist, satirist and editor at The Internet Chronicle. His professional work, which focuses on privacy, government, and civil liberties has appeared in more than 30 news outlets across the Southeastern US. He satirizes Internet culture, technical, and social matters mainstream outlets will not approach. Galloway holds bachelor’s degrees in English and Journalism from Virginia Commonwealth University.