We don't know -- and I doubt we'll ever find out -- just how pervasive, universal and intrusive government and private sector surveillance is, at least for ordinary people. But based on the rather sketchy stories so far posted regarding some of the NSA programs, it's clear that we are meant to understand that surveillance of our communications and online activities is essentially total, and more importantly, that the information derived from that surveillance can (and probably will?) be used against us at any time.
I watched some of the Appropriations Committee grilling of NSA head Alexander yesterday, and his repeated statement that the public should know more -- in fact everything possible -- about what is going on was striking. So was his repeated statement that the congress and administration have continually debated the programs under consideration and they should absolutely continue to do so. These are, of course, the twin issues that the domestic surveillance revelations raised: the public was not informed and could not challenge surveillance because everything about the programs was secret, and again because of pervasive government secrecy, there could not be a thorough or public debate on the topic of domestic surveillance.
So the issues raised by the revelations are being aired extensively and publicly. Domestic surveillance is topic #1 nearly everywhere. Now that it is officially out in the open, everybody is talking about it, and it even seems like the government is being far more open about it than ever before. Where there is hesitation to discuss it is in the private sector, which to me is a very interesting situation, since according to some of the stories about domestic surveillance, by far the majority of it is conducted by the private sector, on their own behalf and on behalf of the government. As far as can be sussed out from the information available so far, it appears that the government itself actually conducts very little of the surveillance under consideration (though it stores information), and -- to the extent these matters have been revealed to date -- direct surveillance by the government is conducted "pursuant to law." That isn't necessarily reassuring, given the flexibility in the surveillance laws, especially since the abrogation of the 4th and 5th Amendments after 9/11, but at least there is some ritual acknowledgement of "law" in the conduct of government surveillance.
It is not so clear in connection with private sector surveillance and how their data is shared with the government. The private sector has taken the tack that they don't surveil and they can't talk about it if they did. The government, in contrast, seems to be saying, "Yeah we keep tabs ('to keep you safe!'). So?"
During my federal employment it was routine for us to utilize a variety of private sector data resources on individuals and organizations, resources which were not generally available to the public but which had been purchased by the government from the private sector. I should point out that the information in these private sector resources was often wrong or useless, and that Teh Goggle was typically more accurate, up to date and useful. That gives you some idea of how much information on everyone is "out there" and how the government has essentially complete access to all of it without any restrictions that I'm aware of.
I think it was Ian Welsh who opined that the earliest surveillance state he was aware of was the latter Roman Empire, and that surveillance was necessary due to its social and political fossilization in its later stages.
I would suggest that surveillance states are necessary any time a small and shrinking Overclass seeks to perpetuate rule over a large subject class.
Take Sparta and their helots, for example. Surveillance by the elite of the Lower Orders was required, and anyone among the helots who appeared to be or was suspected of getting uppity was supposed to be murdered and disposed of forthwith. Thus, social order was maintained.
There can be no doubt at this point that we -- all of us -- live in a surveillance state that has made considerable progress toward becoming a full on police state, in no particular way different than police states of the past.
Surveillance states and police states are rarely interested in building a better future -- at least not for the masses. The Soviet Union and modern China appear to be exceptions to that rule, a case could even be made that the European Fascist states were, at least initially, dedicated to improving the lot of the masses -- who were, of course, under constant surveillance and routine active/deadly policing.
Domestic surveillance and policing are intended, after all, to suppress dissent of any kind.
At least until they fail, they tend to be very successful, remarkably stable, and almost perpetually enduring.
I noted with interest that Young Snowden and Glenn Greenwald both claimed that what they wanted from their surveillance revelations was The Debate; it seems, at least from news reports, that's what they've got. And from news reports, The Debate seems to be leading to a remarkable level of acceptance of extensive surveillance by the government and the private sector. This acceptance would track with the acceptance in many previous surveillance/police states. If it is marketed properly -- as a means of "keeping you safe" -- most people will say they have little or no problem with extensive domestic surveillance and active policing. They are the price you have to pay to live in a peaceful, prosperous -- and safe -- society. No big.
Once a surveillance state is instituted, it never really goes away. Its targets may change over time, but the surveillance of dissenters is always ongoing. Criminals, of course, are identified and targeted via surveillance, but what constitutes criminality is hardly immutable. Certain classes may be officially exempted from surveillance, but there is no way to enforce that exemption once a surveillance state is institutionalized.
We should recognize that aspects of the Surveillance State were part of the foundations of the nation; there was no way, for example, to maintain a slave society in large parts of the nascent United States without the active and constant surveillance of said slaves. So it would be with labor in general as the slave society was officially emancipated.
Certainly since World War I, active surveillance of political dissenters by federal and state officials has been routine, often leading to episodes of public witch hunting and oppression.
Yet despite the many impediments imposed by surveillance states, the American People have periodically been able to build a better future, and the question is whether it is still possible under the metastasizing present day surveillance state.
I would say it is so long as that Better Future is not perceived to jeopardize the primacy and position of the Ruling Class.
For the ultimate purpose of surveillance states is to preserve, protect, and defend the elite from the masses while exploiting them to the fullest extent possible.
So long as the Better Future for the masses does not appear to include any threat to the elites, there is no problem with building a better future in a surveillance state.
Let a threat be perceived, however, and all bets are off....