Astro Noise: A survival guide for living under total surveillance

Documentary film maker Laura Poitra’s exhibit in the Whitney Museum presented an immersive installation covering issues of mass surveillance, the war on terror, Guantánamo Bay, occupation, the US drone program and torture. Some of these issues have been investigated in her films, including Citizenfour, which won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary, and in her reporting, which was awarded a 2014 Pulitzer Prize.

With that came Astastronoisero Noise: A Survival Guide For Living Under Total Surveillance, where Poitras invited authors ranging from artists and novelists to technologists and academics to respond to the modern-day state of mass surveillance. Among them are author Dave Eggers, artist Ai Weiwei, the former Guantanamo Bay detainee Lakhdar Boumediene,  MSR SMC researcher Kate Crawford, and Edward Snowden. Some contributors worked directly with Poitras and the archive of documents leaked by Snowden; others contributed fictional reinterpretations of spycraft. The result is a “how-to” guide for living in a society that collects extraordinary amounts of information on individuals. A few excerpts by the different collaborators:


Laura Poitras –> Her chapter is called “Berlin Journal,” which she wrote between 2012 and 2013, when she had relocated to Europe so she could work easily without fear of having her material taken when she went into the US.

Feb 11. 2013

I read the news for fear of an arrest. It still could be  a shakedown targeting Julian or Jake. Watching what i’ll do with the material. It really is a drama to understand the possible motivations/goals. I take it at face value, but why? He could have approached the NYT or the Washington Post for maximun exposure. Why reach out to a filmmaker? Because I’ve been targeted? Because he has already gone down other paths? Because he doesn’t have what he claims?  (p. 86)

Kate Crawford—> Asking the Oracle

Kate compares the ancient Greek Delphic Oracle, which had restrictions for acquiring knowledge, to the unrestricted vastness of information provided by total surveillance.

So the Oracle, as a technology, set up particular restrictions and limitations. The information flow was restricted by the number of people who could visit the Oracle, by how many questions they could ask, and by the cryptic nature of the responses they received. In this sense there is  strange similarity with the Snowden archive. The person seated before the search box must decide what to ask next and try to exercise restraint so as not to be drawn into thousands of documents and stories and systems. But in another sense, when analysts consult the database inside the fortresses of the NSA and the GCHQ, there seems to be little respect for limits beyond the stictures of policy. Everything that can be captured will be. The archive is an epic testament to information acquisition, overreach, and confidence. It’s as though the guiding principles of Delphi were reversed. Know Everyone. Everything in Excess. Just keep pledgdin that all the necessary protections ar ein place. (p 143)

Edward Snowden –> Astro Noise

With the right antenna, we can hear the universe’s radio noises. The stars themselves (or so it’s been theorized) can provide us an unpredictable source of information that will never be heard again in the same way. As the world turns, our antenna sweeps the vastness of the universe at a given point in time. The signals that we receive constitute an ever-changing key forged from the sky itself. Such a key could only be imitated by an agent listening from that exact same place, in that same direction, at the same time, to those exact same stars. (p. 121)

Cory Doctorow –> The Adventure of the Extraordinary Rendition

In his chapter, Cory Doctorow explores a story of Sherlock Holmes in the times of the NSA.

It’s life in prison if I go public, Mr. Holmes. These kids, their parents are in the long-term XKeyscore retention, all their communications, and they’re frantic. I read their emails to their relatives and each other, and I can only think of how I’d feel if my son had gone missing without a trace. These parents, they’re thinking that their kids have been snatched by pedos and are getting the Daily Mail front-page treatment. The truth, if they knew it, might terrify them even more. Far as I can work out, the NSA sent them to a cIA black site, the kind of place you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. The kind of place you build for revenge, not for intelligence.