In its most recent story based on leaked documents by whistleblower Edward Snowden, The Intercept on Friday revealed the existence of an internal advice column hosted on the National Security Agency's internal NSA.net system which offers agents guidance on issues specific to their work as surveillance specialists and spies.
Called 'Ask Zelda,' the NSA column is a riff on the famous 'Dear Abby' column in popular culture and offers an inside—if not bizarre—look into the daily workings of one of the most secretive agencies in the world.
In a particularly insightful example of what the 'Ask Zelda' column reveals about both the inner-workings of the spy agency and the culture of surveillance itself, The Intercept's Peter Maass describes a letter sent to the column complaining about how workers at the agency were feeling anxious about the level of mistrust directed at them by supervisors, including the idea that many NSA employees felt as though their private "small talk" was being listened to or reported on by other colleagues at the behest of higher-ups.
According to Maass, the Ask Zelda column in question "reads like an unintended allegory – or a cleverly masked one," exploring "the ways in which pervasive surveillance can erode freedom of expression and social cohesion by making it difficult for people to have faith in the privacy of their communications."
The letter quoted reads in part:
SCROLL TO CONTINUE WITH CONTENT
Never Miss a Beat.
Get our best delivered to your inbox.
Here’s the scenario: when the boss sees co-workers having a quiet conversation, he wants to know what is being said (it’s mostly work related). He has his designated “snitches” and expects them to keep him apprised of all the office gossip – even calling them at home and expecting a run-down! This puts the “designees” in a really awkward position; plus, we’re all afraid any offhand comment or anything said in confidence might be either repeated or misrepresented.
Needless to say, this creates a certain amount of tension between team members who normally would get along well, and adds stress in an already stressful atmosphere. There is also an unspoken belief that he will move people to different desks to break up what he perceives as people becoming too “chummy.”
Not surprisingly, within hours of the publication of The Intercept story, someone created the @Ask_Zelda Twitter handle which invited people to "Ask me anything."