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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.

A view of The Empire State Building in April 2013 (Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

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