Great Exploitations: History and the NSA Debate

General Programming

  • Department of History

We cannot understand the programs revealed by Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers without understanding a broader set of historical developments before and after 9/11. With the growing spread of computation into everyday transactions from the 1960s into the 1990s, corporations and governments collected exponentially more information about consumers and citizens. To contend with this deluge of data, computer scientists, mathematicians, and business analysts created new fields of computational analysis, colloquially called “data mining,” designed to produce knowledge or intelligence from vast volume. Second, conservative legal scholars, government officers, and judges had long doubted the constitutionality of legal restrictions that Congress had placed on intelligence work, foreign and domestic, in the late 1970s. Facing the growth of the Internet and the increasing availability of high quality cryptography, national security lawyers within the Department of Justice and the National Security Agency began developing what was called a “modernization” of surveillance and intelligence law to deal with technological developments. Traditions of acquiring and exploiting any foreign sources of communication prompted the NSA to develop ever more invasive ways of hacking into computers and networks worldwide.

In the immediate wake of 9/11, the Bush administration braided these developments, to create a massive global surveillance regime. The administration sought to make it appear at once technologically determined and essential for security in the global war of terror. The job of the NSA was “to exploit” communications networks—to make them available to policymakers; to do this, its lawyers “exploited” the law as well as technology. /Great Exploitations/ tells a history of how we came to exploit communications, law, bureaucracy, and the fear of terrorism, and how we might choose to do so differently.

The discussion will feature Matthew L. Jones, James R. Barker Associate Professor of Contemporary Civilization, Columbia University. David Armitage, Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History, Harvard University, will be the respondent.

Event is free and open to the public. Seating is first come, first served

  • Matthew L. Jones James R. Barker Professor of Contemporary Civilization Columbia University
  • David Armitage Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History Harvard University