Jus Algoritmi: How the National Security Agency Remade Citizenship

John Cheney-Lippold


Classified U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) documents released in the summer of 2013 detailed a trove of controversial surveillance programs, igniting a debate about state power and the rights of citizens. But how can citizenship be evaluated in a digital, networked world? In response to this question, the NSA created an algorithmic, data-based version of citizenship (and foreignness), where a user is legally foreign if his or her “selectors” are “at least 51 percent confidence” foreign. These selectors, which can include telephone numbers, Internet protocol addresses, or language, became effectual arbiters of citizenship online. This article explains what algorithmic citizenship means, what the NSA’s citizenship and foreignness look like, and what the implications are when a formal rubric of U.S. citizenship is based exclusively on algorithmic interpretations of communications data.


NSA, citizenship, algorithm, data, privacy, surveillance, state power

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