It’s almost too perfect. In a twist that sounds like it could have come directly from the dystopia-tinged lyrics of Radiohead’s OK Computer, the Government Communications Headquarters — Britain’s NSA-equivalent — has been digitally spying on civilians internationally using a system named after… a track from OK Computer.
According to a long story in The Intercept, seven years ago, the GCHQ launched a massive surveillance program, code-named KARMA POLICE. The program involved various components; one scrutinized people’s internet browsing history, another looked into all forms of digital communication (Skype calls, emails, texts), and a third while checked on fishy google searches (DO NOT search “gefilte”) and google maps locations.
The GCHQ have also been attentive to the radio shows people listen to: KARMA POLICE involved analyzing the listening proclivities of some 200,000 people worldwide. Though the GHC were looking for stations that “spread radical Islamic ideas,” it mostly found that the programs their unfortunate targets were listening to were unrelated — one of the most popular was France’s Hotmix Radio, “which plays pop, rock, funk and hip-hop music.” (The prevalence of Radiohead songs went sadly unreported.)
According to the Intercept’s report, with KARMA POLICE, the GCHQ was reportedly attempting to be “the biggest surveillance system in the world.” Its aim was to profile… everyone. When plans were drawn up in 2007 or 2008, they were attempting create “either (a) a web browsing profile for every visible user on the Internet, or (b) a user profile for every visible website on the Internet.”
The layers of irony in the GCHQ’s choice of name are so thick you could cut them with a chainsaw: this is a sort of Orwellian version of Republican politicians appropriating “Born in the USA.” Thom Yorke’s anti-authoritarian views are well-documented, and “Karma Police” in particular is an inside joke about large organizations.
While the documents obtained by the Intercept never make it explicit where the name comes from, the article does note that “‘Karma Police’ is also the name of a popular song released in 1997 by the Grammy Award-winning British band Radiohead, suggesting the spies may have been fans,” and particularly notes the verse, “This is what you’ll get, when you mess with us.”
Pitchfork has, allegedly, tried to get a comment from Radiohead’s representatives, so it’ll be interesting to hear what they have to say about the discovery of their new fan base (if, of course, Thom Yorke hasn’t already had an aneurysm about it.)