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?

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Should Jeremy Corbyn go? Two Labour Party members take different views

The Labour leader says he will not betray its members. But what do they think?

The Labour MPs stand on one side. The Momentum activists stand on the other. Both claim to represent the real voice of Labour voters, and therefore the true democratic will. 

 

But Labour voters are divided too. We heard from two Labour Party members with very different views about Corbyn:

 

Stay

Sophie Dodds

On 8 May 2015 I felt pretty wretched. Since 2010 my world had seemed to have become increasingly constricted. Rent had gone up at least 5 per cent every year; wages had not kept pace. East Coast Rail had been handed to a private company which increased ticket prices. For the first time ever, I was being told my diabetes medication would have to be switched to cheaper, less adequate brands, and it was getting harder and harder to get appointments with my nurse. And these were just the ways in which politics had touched me personally.

I went to the anti-austerity march that June and it gave me hope. I didn’t see Jeremy Corbyn speak at that but I was given some leaflets and heard Charlotte Church’s incredible speech, so decided to look into him. I watched a panel debate with all four candidates for the Labour leadership and my mind was settled.

 

Corbyn stood there and calmly and repeatedly stated that the poor should not have to pay for the results of an irresponsible financial sector, and that most economists agree that austerity does not work. He seemed to understand not only how Britain had arrived where it had, but what was going on in the world as a whole, and how we would have to fit into that. He understood that people and politics are complicated and that evangelical solutions will never get us anywhere. He was also the most charismatic of the bunch – not in the traditional, swept-back hair kind of way – but he had a rare air of intelligence, honesty and, to use that hackneyed phrase, integrity.

 

I was clearly not the only person to respond to him in this way. The trade unions got on board and tens of thousands of people paid their £3 and signed up for the right to vote for him. All manner of respected public personalities, from journalists and economists to comedians and musicians, spoke at his rallies. A core of young, digital-savvy and politically disillusioned talent formed and Momentum took shape.

 

There is a fundamental gulf between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Labour Party membership, and a further gulf between those two groups and the rest of the British electorate. We live in fractured times, in which social media only serves to deepen those fractures. As the first Labour leader to be voted in by his own membership, rather than selected by the PLP, Corbyn was never going to have an easy run of it.

 

As for the EU referendum, not only was I 100 per cent sure of where Corbyn stood on this, but he put forward what I felt was the strongest argument for staying in the EU – the protection its laws offer to workers’ rights. Any reserve he showed in his enthusiasm for the EU was simply a reasonable reaction to its very real flaws. Don’t get me wrong, I would much rather be in the EU than out of it, but let’s not forget what happened to Greece. Let’s not forget TTIP.

The mutiny in the PLP has nothing to do with the EU. It’s been coming since he was first elected leader. The PLP are mainly Blairites. At some point or other this s**t was going to hit that fan. If they oust Corbyn, who do they think is going to lead them?

I suspect that the next time Labour win (if there still is a Labour Party by then) it will be under someone a bit more shiny, a bit more slimy, or possibly some charismatic Sturgeon who maintains her right to slash and burn as necessary.

But Godammit, whilst I still have the power to, I will keep voting for that socks and sandals man. And if they oust him for good? Well, at least I will save £5 a month on my Labour membership.

Go

Simon Foster

You've spent the last five days lamenting the loss of your Interrail pass, predicting a return to wartime rationing and contemplating overturning an incredible democratic mandate. Yet now a new post adorns your timeline. Your Facebook profile picture remains a snap of you “finding yourself” on your gap year in Thailand but it is now joined with a curious red banner proclaiming "I'm With Corbyn". You're with who?

Surely we can't be thinking about the same Corbyn? The Corbyn who remained practically invisible during the referendum campaign, surfacing only to reveal that he was "7 out of 10" in favour of Remain. The same Corbyn who refused to put party politics aside to campaign with Cameron even after private polling indicated this would help the Remain vote. Indeed, the very same Corbyn whose team under Seamus Milne actively worked to sabotage Labour In. Surely you cannot still be defending this champagne socialist?

I admit I am towards the more social democratic wing of the Labour Party - sorry, I mean I am "Blairite vermin" (the term adorned on a t-shirt worn by a delightful Socialist Workers' Party member during a recent pro-Corbyn march). I didn't vote for Jezza's vision of a “kinder politics” last September and have been calling for his ousting pretty much ever since.

I am honestly speechless at the continued unwavering support of my Facebook friends for a man whose utter incompetence has lead to a referendum result which most of them have despaired over.

Let's make no mistake here - the big loser of the referendum was the Labour Party. Much, if not most, of the blame for that rests on the shoulders of Jeremy Corbyn. A Britain Stronger In Europe memo leaked just three weeks before polling day revealed that up to 50 per cent of Labour voters weren't actually sure what the party's position on the EU was. How truly pathetic.

Is it really at all surprising then that come Thursday all the Northern Labour heartlands and 64 per cent of C2DE workers voted Leave? So surely we should all now be in agreement that Labour lost this referendum. Spectacularly. Yet I'm sure the Corbyinstas will blame it all on Tony Blair. Is there anything for which Corbyn is to blame which cannot instead be blamed on a Prime Minister who stepped down almost 10 years ago?

I guess this shouldn't even be a surprise to me. Some of those proclaiming their solidarity with Jeremy now are the same people who previously defended the anti-Semitic actions of Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone by claiming this was the imaginings of the "right-wing media".

As far as I can see it you can either be a Brexiteer, happy that the referendum campaign secured you the working-class votes necessary for your shock victory, or you backed Remain and are furious with Corbyn's lacklustre support. How can you possibly continue to support him when he ensured this defeat was inevitable?