Posted by Margaret Lowry on March 25, 2015 in Blog

A new game, TouchTone, released this week to the iTunes app store puts you in the shoes of a National Security Agency analyst. To move through the levels, you must solve puzzles in order to intercept communications from potential security threats, all while answering to your handler, codenamed “patriot”. The game is unsettling, after solving a puzzle correctly, you’re able to read private emails and make an assessment on whether to report them as suspicious activity. The more of these messages you read, the less sure you are of your ability to distinguish threats, and the less agency you feel you have in making your assessments.

The sense of unease that comes from playing the game is intentional, it was designed it to make you feel uncomfortable and to question the methods used by the NSA. Developers Michael Boxleiter and Greg Wohlwend, who publish their work as Mikengreg, started TouchTone as a simple puzzle game, but thought it was lacking a compelling storyline. They sat on the game for almost two years, until the Edward Snowden leaks broke in the news, and government surveillance tactics were pushed into the limelight. “I more just wanted to create interesting context for people to think about all the questions we have floating around the national consciousness, and my read on ways that we can think about it,” Boxleiter explained in a recent interview, “It's kind of a thought experiment for me, how can I create a situation thematically that exposes a lot of these problematic issues in ways that people might not have thought about.“

One such issue that the game touches on is the heightened scrutiny the NSA places on Arab Americans and American Muslims. The first target the game gives you is an American Muslim of Iranian descent named Samir Jilani. As your handler tells you to monitor Jilani, he jokes “Samir’s an Iranian and a Muslim, so our work is already half done.” This past summer, the NSA was documented monitoring the emails of prominent American Muslims on a spreadsheet made available by Snowden. By picking up on these prejudices and uncertainties, Boxleiter and Wohlwend are forcing players to confront some of the most problematic aspects of the NSA’s practices.

The release of the game coincided with the unveiling of a new effort for NSA reform on the Hill. Yesterday, Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced the Surveillance State Repeal Act (SSRA). The Act represents the most aggressive NSA reform proposal to date. It seeks to repeal the Patriot Act, the FISA Amendments Act, and widely reform the way our government collects and uses data. It would also extend protections for whistleblowers, such as Snowden, and prevent the practice of forcing tech companies to create “backdoors” in their devices. Although the Act isn’t likely to pass – less aggressive legislation has failed to do so in the past – its sponsors believe it’s time for a mass overhaul of our surveillance programs. “This isn’t just tinkering around the edges,” Rep. Pocan said in a briefing Tuesday, “it’s a meaningful overhaul that makes sure the meaningless surveillance of emails and cell phones are done away with.” The provision of the Patriot Act that allows for mass collection of communication data by the NSA will expire on June 1, advocates of the SSRA hope that support for their efforts will challenge the landscape of debate around government surveillance.  The White House has stated today that should the provision expire, they will not continue the bulk metadata collection, clarifying that the Administration will not pursue a legal loophole to continue the practice. 

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