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?

Photo: Getty
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“I’m frightened, genuinely frightened”: how London terror attacks affect the rest of the country

What happens to tourism after terrorism? 

Like many children his age, Adele Pillinger’s six-year-old son is “obsessed” with dinosaurs. Last year, the mother of two from Silsden, West Yorkshire, booked a family trip to London so her two sons could visit the fossil-filled Natural History Museum. They were to go in October 2017 – next month. But last week, Pillinger cancelled the trip.

“I feel it’s too much of a risk,” says the 38-year-old, who made the decision to cancel after the Parsons Green tube attack last Friday. “I’ve got two young children… I wouldn’t put them in harm’s way and that’s what I feel like I’d be doing by taking them to London at the moment.”

Pillinger is not isolated in her decision. Although it is difficult to count the precise impact of terrorism on London tourism, the Westminster Bridge attack in March and London Bridge attack in June saw school trips being cancelled and many changing their plans to visit the capital. Headlines after terror often speak of resilient city-dwellers keeping calm and carrying on, but the effect of terrorism on the psyche – and plans – of others in the country is little discussed.
Adele's son, via Adele Pillinger
“I’m frightened. I’m genuinely frightened,” says Pillinger. “I feel genuinely sorry for you guys [Londoners] because you kind of have to crack on with it. I’m sure if it was happening on our doorstep we’d probably feel the same way… but I wouldn’t visit for pleasure at the moment, I can make a decision to not do it.” Instead, Pillinger plans to take her family mountain-biking in Wales.  

Cori Clarke, a 30-year-old teaching assistant from York, has recently decided against taking her six-year-old son Jude to visit his great-grandmother, who lives in London. “Last summer I took my daughter for a few days in London, a sort of girls’ weekend, and this year was going to be my son’s turn. But with what’s happened, I’m just not going to take him.”

Although she’s aware it may sound hypocritical, Clarke does agree with people who say that cancelling plans is “letting the terrorists win” – and she even persuaded her mother against cancelling her own separate trip, planned for November. “I would say you can’t let these people stop your plans, which I know is contradictory,” explains Clarke, “but I don’t want my son seeing anything; I think he’d be absolutely terrified if anything happened… I just thought it’s not worth it basically.”

Many other parents face similar decisions to Pillinger’s and Clarke’s. Primary school children were trapped in the Houses of Parliament during the Westminster attack in March, and schools across the country have been reassessing their planned trips to London. If schools go ahead with their plans, mums and dads then face the difficult decision of whether or not to isolate their children by pulling them out of the trip.

“I just said no, it just seemed too recent,” says Milli Brazier, a 27-year-old from Southend, Essex, who pulled her nine-year-old daughter out of a trip to visit the Science Museum after the Westminster attack. Though the school originally intended to cancel the trip, it went ahead after parents complained. Brazier and a few other parents decided against letting their children go.

“To be honest the school’s not the most organised school and the thought of if anything did happen… the idea of the school not being able to organise the children and keep them safe…” Brazier trails off. “I think as a parent if you’re not comfortable sending your child anywhere… if it’s not right for you as a parent, then you shouldn’t do it.”
Milli and her family, via Milli Brazier
Like Pillinger, the mother from Silsend, Brazier feels that the rest of the country doesn’t have to “carry on” like Londoners do after attacks. “If you live in London you have to carry on, but if you’re making an unnecessary trip to me it just seems a little bit pointless to take that risk when you don’t need to,” she says. “If I didn’t have children I’d probably do it myself but it’s different when you have children.”

Neither Pillinger, Brazier or Clarke know when they will feel comfortable enough to visit the capital again. “I don’t feel the government is doing enough to make people feel safe,” says Pillinger. When people accuse her of letting the terrorists “win” by changing her plans, she has a succinct reply.

“I would say that I think they’re already winning,” she says, “because we’re not doing anything about it. Everyone’s entitled to feel how they feel about it but I think they’re already winning because I’m frightened…

“It’s not normal what’s happening, it’s not normal and it’s not right and I do think the government needs to get a grip on it and do something more about it.”

By the end of the year, it will perhaps be easier to see the financial impact terrorism has had on London’s tourist industry. It's worth noting that, at present, you're more likely to be killed by a dog or by hot water than by a terrorist. But regardless, it is clear that some families' perception of the capital has changed. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.