Watching the Watchers: An Aerial Perspective On the NSA

The past nine months have been a real getting-to-know-you period between the National Security Agency and the American people, but the balance of intel is definitely skewed.

We've got some catching up to do, and these expansive pics by artist Trevor Paglen show three government agencies—the NSA, National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA)—offer a new visual perspective on where our data's being collected.

Watching the Watchers: An Aerial Perspective On the NSA

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is in Springfield, Virginia, and is responsible for "collecting, analyzing and distributing intelligence derived from maps and imagery."

Each of these images were shot at night by Paglen from a helicopter. The sites are massive, with no branding or signage; without the captions and the context, it would be pretty impossible to parse that these were any different than a series of office complexes surrounded by parking lots and streetlights.

And, for Paglen, that's actually the point. "A surveillance apparatus doesn't really 'look' like anything," he writes at The Intercept, the new online venture by investigative reporter and Guardian alum Glenn Greenwald, who introduced Edward Snowden to the world (the photos were a joint-commission by The Intercept and Creative Time Reports).

Watching the Watchers: An Aerial Perspective On the NSA

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is located in Chantilly, Virginia, and is the third-largest U.S. intelligence agency. Its budget request is a staggering $10.3 billion.

The steady stream of revelations still emerging about the reach of each of these organizations—they're scooping up our random texts, Angry Birds triumphs, smartphone location data, and so much more—seems to exist in a strange, somewhat sinister cloud; seeing these ground-bound buildings is a fascinating contrast.

Paglen states in a short video about the pics that he "wants to develop a visual and cultural vocabulary to begin talking about this kind of thing… To make an image that can be a reference point for a larger conversation."

It's a discussion he's been leading for years, snapping remote military bases using high-powered telescopes, showing insignia from the Pentagon's super classified "black world" insignias, and finding CIA-run secret prisons in Afghanistan. And there's no doubt there will be quite a bit more back-and-forths in this ongoing exchange between the government and the public. [The Intercept]

Lead image: The NSA in Fort Meade, Maryland.