Sensuous Spies: Mass Surveillance and the History of the Senses

Congress on Privacy poster

Eavesdropping, censorship, recording, and surveillance are weapons of power. The technology of listening in on, ordering, transmitting, and recording noise is at the heart of this apparatus …. Who among us is free of the feeling that this process, taken to an extreme, is turning the modern State into a gigantic, monopolizing noise emitter, and at the same time, a generalized eavesdropping device.  Eavesdropping on what?  In order to silence whom?”[1]

Jacques Attali, Noise (1985)

Beginning in June, a steady stream of disclosures by Edward Snowden has unveiled astonishing details about the mass surveillance state.  We have come to learn about the radically intrusive scope of the shadowy United States National Security Agency (NSA) and the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).  In a recent essay on Tropics of Meta, I emphasized the perverse influence of NSA Director General Keith Alexander, who commands a vast array of secretive, well-financed agencies and military commands in charge of the nation’s signals intelligence (SIGINT), which includes the massive programs of electronic surveillance exposed by Snowden and his journalistic partners.[2]  Alexander has drawn increasingly close scrutiny, including an incisive account of his career by Shane Harris.[3] Meanwhile, recent revelations that have outraged Europeans include the NSA tapping of the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a bizarre program that appears to have lasted from 2002 until 2013 and of which President Barack Obama either approved or remained blissfully unaware.[4]  These kinds of secret surveillance programs have generated mounting anger around the world and, to a lesser extent, in America.[5]  Legislation might soon halt or recalibrate some of NSA’s plans for total access to the metadata and content of the world’s phone calls, texts, emails, and social media.[6]

thank you edward snowden
“Stop Watching Us” Rally in Washington, 26 October 2013

Of course, NSA’s shenanigans are not new, just massively larger in scope than before.  NSA, despite its statutory charter as an exclusively foreign intelligence agency, has been listening to Americans for a very long time.  We learned in September from declassified NSA files that during the 1960s the agency tapped the phones of such American luminaries as Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr.[7]  James Bamford, Tim Weiner and other indefatigable investigators have documented innumerable abuses of power and overweening ambitions by NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency, Cold War entities that have never stopped grasping new rationales for increased funding and authority.[8]

As a historian with a special interest in the senses, I’ve come to believe that the Snowden revelations resonate in part because they disinter deeper fears about visual and audio surveillance with rich roots in history, the arts and popular culture.  NSA and GCHQ like to defend their obliteration of the privacy of citizens around the world by stressing how unique are today’s instantaneous communications and the threat of terrorism.  A quick glance at the past, however, dispels this claim.  Sensory practices and symbolism have defined long espionage.  Being attuned to the senses is essential for understanding “the secret world” and its history of abuses of power.

Spies and intelligence analysts make intensively self-conscious use of an array of techniques of listening and looking in, and, just as importantly, they speak and write in arresting auditory and visual idioms.  This is both a matter of actual individual (and collective) sensory experience (the undercover spy peering through the camera lens, the SIGINT interceptor listening in on a target’s phone call) and of sensory metaphor. As sensory historian Mark M. Smith has argued, metaphors are crucial.  They gain, through various forms of media, “wide social and cultural circulation” and shape enduring perceptions.[9]  On this, if nothing else, denizens of the secret world have long been candid.

Signals intelligence, in particular, is understood as an area in which “you’re sticking your head into the other guy’s huddle – you’re hearing his exact words, what he’s saying, what he’s thinking.”  As a recent news account of American and Israeli espionage on Syrian weapons of mass destruction casually put it, “Israel is the eyes and ears.” (This, of course, is a colossal irony, as the Israelis are known to U.S. officials to engage in massive espionage against Americans)[10]

Consider one of the most popular metaphors for understanding power and surveillance: the panopticon.  A moderate commentator has concluded that the ambitions of GCHQ have changed British life:

What this means is that we’re moving towards a new kind of society. Britain is already the most spied on, monitored and surveilled democratic society there has ever been. This doesn’t seem to have been discussed or debated, and I don’t remember ever being asked to vote for it….

The prospect this presents is something like the “panopticon” which Enlightenment philosophers advocated as a design for the ideal prison in the 18th century, and about which the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote in his book Discipline and Punish. “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relations in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”

That’s what we risk becoming: a society which is in crucial respects a giant panopticon, where the people with access to our secrets can see, hear, intercept and monitor everything.[11]

Foucault’s panopticon, which came by way of Jeremy Bentham, though long understood as a “metaphor for the transparency of vision . . . was also a listening prison in which, through a series of tubes, the inmates could be heard at all times.”  Thus, sound studies scholars Michael Bull and Les Black have written, “The history of surveillance is as much a sound history as a history of vision.”[12]

So, when Snowden himself recently condemned the NSA’s “dragnet mass surveillance that puts entire populations under sort of an eye that sees everything even when it’s not needed,” we know “an ear” is “hearing everything,” too.[13]  In fact, NSA’s own PowerPoint slides, recently published on the website of the Washington Post, reveal that the agency’s eyes are much bigger than its stomach: quite literally, they capture too much “data from email address books and buddy lists” to read. [14] Indeed, a new study suggests this is part of a larger problem.  NSA and the rest of the Intelligence Community is too big not to fail.[15]

French demonstrators supporting Snowden

Exuberant auditory and visual expressions by the intelligence community often betray a futuristic, technological hubris that, in its more comic manifestations, leads someone like General Keith Alexander to construct a special war room

Designed by a Hollywood set designer to mimic the bridge of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek, complete with chrome panels, computer stations, a huge TV monitor on the forward wall, and doors that made a “whoosh” sound when they slid open and closed.  Lawmakers and other important officials took turns sitting in a leather ‘captain’s chair’ in the center of the room and watched as Alexander, a lover of science-fiction movies, showed off his data tools on the big screen.[16]

General Keith Alexander, whose Big Ass Ears are, metaphorically, the largest in human history
General Keith Alexander, whose Big Ass Ears are, metaphorically, the largest in human history

Fantasies like Alexander’s make good fodder for comedians.  However, the Star Trek room manifests a deeper desire for total vision, the ability to see all information and use displays of that information to enhance NSA’s standing.  Shane Harris reports:

…. Under Alexander’s leadership, one of the agency’s signature analysis tools was a digital graph that showed how hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people, places, and events were connected to each other. They were displayed as a tangle of dots and lines. Critics called it the BAG — for “big ass graph” — and said it produced very few useful leads. CIA officials in charge of tracking overseas terrorist cells were particularly unimpressed by it. “I don’t need this,” a senior CIA officer working on the agency’s drone program once told an NSA analyst who showed up with a big, nebulous graph. “I just need you to tell me whose ass to put a Hellfire missile on.”[17]

This visualist conceit, however, is belied by the intelligence community’s history of auditory self-portraits.  A classic British example can be found hanging on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery in London.  Hein Heckroth’s painting “Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart” (1939) alludes to the influential military strategist’s alleged affiliation with British secret intelligence: in the foreground is a prominent ear.

Hein Heckroth - Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart
Hein Heckroth, “Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart” (1939) National Portrait Gallery, London

A more recent American artistic homage to the art of secret listening adorns NSA’s Fort Meade, Maryland headquarters.  According to James Bamford, who adorned the cover of his book The Puzzle Palace with an ear, walking through a corridor in the lobby, “one passes a wall-sized, thirty-three-foot acrylic mural depicting actual Agency employees engaged in a variety of activities, from listening through earphones to collecting signals from a satellite.”[18]

The Puzzle Palace cover

Over a century ago, the sociologist Georg Simmel ingeniously argued,

According to its very nature, the eye cannot take without simultaneously giving, whereas the ear is the egoistic organ pure and simple, which only takes, but does not give; its external formation seems almost to symbolize this, in so far as it seems to be a somewhat passive appendage of the human appearance, and by being the most immovable organ of the human head.  It pays for this egoism in that it cannot turn away or close itself, like the eye; rather, since it only takes, it is condemned to take everything that comes into its vicinity – a fact which will reveal sociological consequences.[19]

Simmel’s work has influenced sensory studies, but however delightful that quote is, the German theorist underestimated the ability of the spy’s eye to cloak itself.  Led by the Americans, the world’s secret keepers and secret stealers have deployed phenomenal technology, as well as venerable traditions of spycraft, to scrutinize “without simultaneously giving.”  

Listening has become such a prevalent metaphor that defenders of NSA programs actually invoke it to assure Americans they are not being victimized.  Obama responded to the initial Snowden disclosures with the assertion, “No one is listening to your calls.”  While technically correct when defending the mass collection of metadata, the president’s claim is misleading.

They’ll see the Big Board!

As privacy and communications experts have emphasized, metadata provides an immense amount of information. Some have argued that the government’s vast database of communications metadata is a greater threat to privacy than if spy agencies were targeting the content of specific individuals’ calls and emails. The NSA’s PRISM program, for example, collects data such as originating number, terminating number and length of call for every customer of the phone companies involved in the program — a sprawling database of our connections is thus provided.[20]

The president’s ineffectual diversionary disclaimers notwithstanding, his government is looking and listening intently, and not exclusively for tips on terrorism (which, one imagines, are hard to come by via Chancellor Merkel’s cell phone).  General Alexander’s predecessor used a gendered visual metaphor to suggest a way Obama might mollify liberal and libertarian critics.  General Michael Hayden (who recently got a dose of his own medicine when a fellow passenger live tweeted an interview the general conducted aboard a train) said he believed the American and British intelligence agencies had to “show a lot more leg” if they wanted to win broad public understanding and support for surveillance.[21]

General Michael Hayden, a little more leg
A little more leg

While more transparency would be most welcome – it is, literally, the least the intelligence community owes us – I beg to differ with General Hayden about the impact of purposeful, selective disclosure.  The more we learn about the sights and sounds of spying, the less rational it all seems, the less like harmless or merely intriguing bits for entertainment and more like a frightening demonstration of power run amok.

Larry Grubbs is a senior lecturer in the History Department at Georgia State University, and the author of Secular Missionaries: Americans and African Development in the 1960 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010).

[1] Jacques Attali, quoted in Auditory Culture Reader, 29 – from Attali, Noise

[8] See especially James Bamford, The Puzzle Palace (1982) and The Shadow Factory (2008) and Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes (2007).

[9] Mark M. Smith, Sensing the Past, 131.

[10] David Alvarez, “Trying to Make the MAGIC Last: American Diplomatic Codebreaking in the Early Cold War,” Diplomatic History (November 2007):874);;

[12] Michael Bull and Les Back, “Introduction: Into Sound,” in The Auditory Culture Reader (2003): 5

[18] James Bamford 1982: 61

[19] “Sociology of the Senses,” 115 in Simmel on Culture