Obsessed with the latest fussy innovations on the iPhone? Well, the NSA has an app for that.
As all the technophilic world rejoices over the Versailles-meets-Minority-Report innovations that Apple has proudly announced in its upcoming release of the iPhone 5S, we might all do well to ponder how our model digital consumer looks to the masters of the national security state. According to a report in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, the leaders of the NSA look upon the mass fixation on Steven Jobs’s signature gizmo as the spymaster’s equivalent of “Everybody into the pool!”
Drawing on the avalanche of data released by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Der Spiegel zeroed in on a series of NSA presentations on the surveillance possibilities of the smartphone. The gist of the analysis is none too complimentary to the self-awareness of yon digital elite:
In exploiting the smartphone, the intelligence agency takes advantage of the carefree approach many users take to the device. According to one NSA presentation, smartphone users demonstrate “nomophobia,” or “no mobile phobia.” The only thing many users worry about is losing reception. A detailed NSA presentation titled, “Does your target have a smartphone?” shows how extensive the surveillance methods against users of Apple’s popular iPhone already are.
In three consecutive transparencies, the authors of the presentation draw a comparison with “1984,” George Orwell’s classic novel about a surveillance state, revealing the agency’s current view of smartphones and their users. “Who knew in 1984 that this would be Big Brother . . .” the authors ask, in reference to a photo of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. And commenting on photos of enthusiastic Apple customers and iPhone users, the NSA writes: “. . . and the zombies would be paying customers?”
Who indeed? And perhaps more shocking: Who could have anticipated that NSA administrators would be such trenchant social critics? (Then again, it probably makes sense that they would align themselves with Google in the upcoming war for our Big Data future.)
For the record, the new iPhone will reportedly feature a fingerprint-activated password setup—because what enterprising nomophobe wouldn’t want an unaccountable global spying agency to be able to replicate his or her fingerprints? And it’s also available in a new gold model—the ultimate aspirational statement for a corps of zombies who are unwittingly letting the surveillance state access all their sensitive financial data anyway.
To drive the point home, the NSA presenters went on to show a series of compromising images of smartphone enthusiasts they had hacked around the world, including “an image of the son of a former defense secretary with his arm around a young woman.” This has to be our favorite one, however:
A photo taken in January 2012 is especially risqué: It shows a former senior government official of a foreign country who, according to the NSA, is relaxing on his couch in front of a TV set and taking pictures of himself—with his iPhone. To protect the person’s privacy, SPIEGEL has chosen not to reveal his name or any other details.
This has to be the most shocking disclosure thus far in the NSA scandal: Anthony Weiner is “a former senior government official of a foreign country.”
Chris Lehmann is senior editor of The Baffler.