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  • On National Writing Day . . . . the NSA is tracking what you write

    DARPA Total Information Awareness Program
    DARPA Total Information Awareness Program

    October 20 is the fifth annual National Day on Writing. This year National Writing Day falls on two days, Oct. 20 and 21, because October 20th is a Sunday, and in some states you can’t write on Sundays, just as you can’t buy cars or alcohol, even if it’s not your sabbath. 

    You may observe National Writing Day on Sunday, on Monday, or on both days, in which case to be grammatically correct you might want to call it National Writing DAYS, which makes it sound more like a department store sale, but you can wait to deal with that issue on National Grammar Day.

    The best way to celebrate National Writing Day is to write. Write anything, a text, a tweet, a blog post, a novel, some greeting card verse, even a message in a bottle: any writing done on National Writing Day counts, especially if you write online, because these days writing online has become the way to write.

    The sponsors of National Writing Day want you to like National Writing Day on Facebook. They want you to blog about it. They want you to tweet about it, using the hashtag #write2connect. This will create an instant online community of writers writing about writing. It will also make it easier for the National Security Agency to collect and analyze your posts. Because on National Writing Day, like every other day of the year, the NSA, DARPA, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and China, to name but a few, are tracking what you write, collecting it, analyzing it, and evaluating your status as a potential terrorist, a potential customer, or someone whose computer has a big “HACK ME” sign taped to the screen.

    Don’t get me wrong. Writing is a good thing. We also celebrate writing on National Handwriting Day, National Spelling Day, Dictionary Day, National Punctuation Day, National Grammar Day, National Literacy Day, National Greeting Card Day, and National Standardized Testing Day (OK, I made those last two up), but we should also celebrate it every day, year round.

    Thanks to digital technology, more people are writing more things than ever before. Can you imagine how many people would tweet if they had to write those 140 characters on clay tablets? Can you imagine how eager the NSA would be to collect all those clay tablets—I mean, there isn’t a warehouse big enough to store them, or enough scanners to put them into machine-readable files.

    Generally, collecting and preserving writing is a good thing. Libraries are in business to collect writing, and they vie with one another to see who has more books. We’re still mourning the destruction of the great library at Alexandria, with the loss of much of the ancient world’s writing. Google is only one of several organizations anxious to digitize every bit of writing done before the computer age, just so the destruction of the written record doesn’t happen again.

    Collecting the digital written record seems a good thing as well. Everyone thinks it’s cool when the Library of Congress archives all our tweets. But when the NSA starts to put our online lives into its database, setting up the Federal Espionage and Surveillance Library, then suddenly critics are yelling about government intrusion, the expectation of privacy, and much less polite versions of, “Hey, you, over there, G-Man or Woman, eyes on your own screen.”

    Maybe writers should just think of the NSA not as chilling free speech, but as one more member of the reading public. After all, in the pre-digital age, writers spent their professional lives chasing readers. When writers wrote on paper, they were lucky to get a few hundred readers (few writers get the audience of a J. K. Rowling). But the internet offers writers an instant, massively-multi-reader audience. You can write on paper and receive a universal yawn. But when you write online, suddenly readers are everywhere. So if the NSA is reading over your shoulder, or Google sends you an ad based on something you emailed to a friend, as a writer you should think, “Cool, another reader of my undeserving prose.” But no, you think, “Orwell was right, the surveillance society is here.” You scream, “Invasion of privacy.” Or, “Illegal search and seizure.” Or you put the ACLU on speed dial.

    I think writers would be more favorable toward the security services and marketers who monitor our keystrokes if we celebrated not just National Writing Day, but also National Reader Over Your Shoulder Day. On that day, or better yet, every day, the NSA and Google might offer not just to collect our posts to determine the level of threat we represent, but also to copyedit them and offer suggestions for improvement.

    If I got a need-to-know message from the NSA telling me I left out a comma in the third paragraph (burn after reading); if Amazon suggested I might like to buy a sentence similar to one I just uploaded (free shipping, no tax); if the government of China offered to critique my manuscript in exchange for placing a cookie on my hard drive (and a free order of crab Rangoon with my next upload), then their monitoring of my online writing might seem less chilling or intrusive.

    In the final analysis, writing online is an act of publication. And one of the things writers do when they publish is to yield to readers the power of interpretation. The NSA, Microsoft, and the Chinese internet police are just three more sets of readers, drawing three more sets of conclusions from a post, a text, an email. Many writers don’t see this as benign—and often they’re right, it’s not benign. But if the online monitors decide to interpret a post as subversive, they can do that because, alas, writers don’t usually get to pick their readers.

    Before the internet, publishers and censors were locked in opposition for centuries. Now posters and spies are doing the same thing: extending what can be said in ways never before imagined, and limiting what can be said as well. On National Writing Day we celebrate writing on the internet. But on National Writing Day, of all days, we shouldn’t be surprised that a medium like the internet, which offers writers instant publication and more readers than any previous communication technology, also offers the authorities more opportunities for surveillance, control, and suppression of our ideas than ever before.

    Logo for DARPA's Total Information Awareness program 

    Logo for DARPA’s Total Information Awareness Initiative, whose motto, “Knowledge is Power,” seems to mean, not that we should all strive to learn as much as possible, but the more DARPA knows about us, the stronger the agency will be. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is but one of may federal agencies engaged in intercepting and analyzing online writing for the purpose of national security.

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