A view of The Empire State Building in April 2013 (Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
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Laurie Penny on everyday surveillance: Why I was afraid to take a picture in New York

Power is about who gets to do the watching and who has to put up with being watched.

If there’s something called a soul and it moves at walking pace, mine was hundreds of miles behind me a few nights ago as, sleepless, I took a stroll through Lower Manhattan. When they have things to forget, some people drink, some people take drugs, and others clear out their savings to pound the streets of a different city until the scale and pace of it makes them feel appropriately small.

New York’s financial district is a good place for this. At night, since Occupy Wall Street was cleared away, the streets are mostly empty, apart from all the ghosts, and the autumn air is moist and weird. Over everything looms One World Trade Center, recently completed. This past week, the artist Banksy wrote that the large, unremarkable edifice “clearly proclaims the terrorists have won. Those ten men have condemned us to live in a world more mediocre than the one they attacked.”

Not just those ten men. It will take years for the US and its notional allies to feel the chilling effect of the Edward Snowden revelations, detailing the extent of the US National Security Agency’s snooping on global communications data. Britain is complicit, and has no First Amendment to prevent the prime minister threatening newspapers with the prospect of court action if they don’t shut up about those NSA and GCHQ leaks. But it is still the US that is understood to be spying on the whole world.

What gives America the right to hoard all that information without consent? How can it justify doing so even as it hunts down anyone, such as the British hacker Lauri Love, who is suspected of trying to peek into its own systems to see who’s talking to whom? Power is about who gets to do the watching and who has to put up with being watched.

Viewed from Europe, the way that millions of citizens have had their data stored and Angela Merkel’s mobile phone has been tracked without permission looks like a monstrous invasion of national sovereignty. From here in New York, the entitlement is obvious: this is the heart of global capitalism, huge, beautiful and empty. Of course human rights come second to making sure that nobody thinks about attacking the United States ever again.

As I crossed the street in a light rain, a middle-aged couple walked ahead of me. It was too dark for the shadow of the new tower to fall over the street, but that’s how it felt and that’s what they were talking about – change and resurrection: “You know,” she said, “I still have a box of matches from Windows on the World. How much do you think they’d be worth now?”

Her companion thought about it. “Fifty cents,” he said. “This is New York.”

People in New York really do say, “This is New York,” as if they’re reminding themselves. I turned around to take a picture. I stood for a while trying to fit the intimidating scale of that dull glass-and-metal erection into the screen.

And then a curious thing happened. I stiffened and looked around. The couple had disappeared. I was alone on the street. Had anyone seen me take that picture? Was it even allowed? Did I look suspicious? Last time I checked, I was still white, which makes me significantly less likely to be hassled by any New York police officer. But just to be on the safe side, I posted the picture to my public Instagram site, with a cheeky message and a pretty filter. Smile! Nothing to hide. Anyone tracking my feed can see that I’m just an ordinary tourist, standing here being very impressed by your very impressive building.

The next day, over drinks with a security expert friend, I told him about my little attack of paranoia. That’s ridiculous, he said. That’s not the way the tracking gets done. What the NSA and GCHQ are interested in isn’t the content of your calls and emails, but the metadata –who you’re emailing, who you’re speaking to and for how long. Unless, of course, you’re a hacker or a head of state, in which case you might warrant a little more personal snooping. It takes far too long to process hard data.

Metadata is cheap to store.

Metadata. That’s what most people are, to the US government: part of the metadata, unless they are important or unlucky enough to merit special attention.

Before I came to New York, I didn’t really believe it existed. After I arrived, I knew for sure that it didn’t. It’s a city of a thousand film sets, a hundred thousand novels, plays, diary entries and feverish dreams. In the bookshops you can buy collections of essays by famous writers telling their own stories about coming to Manhattan, and all of them are true. The New York of legend is bigger and more brilliant than any real place could ever be, and everybody here is walking through the film set of their own life, imagining a city.

It has that in common with the rest of the enormous country it hangs off like a lifeboat: the idea of America is bigger than the hundreds of millions of actual Americans the country happens to be full of. People, going to work and falling in love and taking sleepless walks late at night, are just the metadata for that myth. It is a powerful and frightening myth, and the more powerful and frightening it becomes, the harder it gets to live inside it.

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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