I really don’t like it when I hear people equating a desire for privacy with wanting to hide wrongdoing. I read one commentator’s use of the analogy that there’s nothing wrong with performing the human excretory functions, but we still don’t put the toilet in the living room. Although the data we leave behind as we move through life in the 21st century is really more like an exhalation than an excretion, still, the desire for privacy when we leave that data on Google’s servers is no more unreasonable than wanting to perform other necessary functions in private. I do not want the state picking through my effluent, corporal or digital.
Knowing that the thoughts and desires evident in our browsing behavior, shopping records, movements and communications, are being recorded and evaluated by a hidden listener constantly trying to discover what we’d like to buy, see, hear or read, we shrug it off as just the behind the scenes working of our Siri-like agent. But, crucially, this is because we consider the hidden listener to be ultimately working for us, the person doing the browsing, shopping, moving and communicating. If the agent is instead working on behalf of someone else, recording our movements and communications looking for evidence that could fit a pattern of potential wrongdoing, or suggests a connection to others suspected of potential wrongdoing, then Orwell’s nightmare will have become our day to day life. It seems like we’re almost there.
The scoffing of those who sneer that most people’s data is of no interest to the surveillance state is particularly loathsome to me. That statement is true only if one has no reason to attract the malicious interest of those watching, and that obviously depends as much on the character and motives of the people controlling the surveillance apparatus as it does on the character and motives of the people under surveillance. From what I can see of people in government or contracted with the government to run its vast surveillance operation, they are not necessarily better people than the rest of us. I hardly find that cause for reassurance. On the contrary, I find it reason to believe that without credible checks and balances the enormous surveillance machine is susceptible to abuse or misuse for all kinds of purposes other than finding terrorists, and we would be unlikely to even know that such abuses are happening. The chief judge of the secret FISC court apparently agrees, admitting there is really no effective judicial oversight of the surveillance process. And in the latest news, after years of flat denial by the NSA, comes the admission that such abuse of the system can, and has, occurred, as well as the surfacing of convincing evidence that the system has been used to pursue copyright infringement instead of terror!
The goal of PRISM and all the other acronyms for the programs integrating surveillance data is supposed to be threat recognition. But is it really possible that those in power could identify a threat to their interests posed by a portion of the citizenry that includes, for some reason, you or me, or other people who are not in any way terrorists? Well, the system looks for potential threats, however ‘threat’ is now being defined or may be redefined in the future. I’d say that even if you aren’t downloading terrorist manuals or copyrighted material we still have to assume that by openly declaring a desire to curtail the use of this monitoring system citizens will be identifying themselves as a threat to the interests of the surveillance apparatus, thus making themselves (and their contacts) ‘legitimate’ targets for additional surveillance. A disturbing feedback loop, which gets worse the more you think about it.
Is it a paranoid fantasy out of Kafka to think that what you innocently say or do now, without thought it is wrong, might in the future be declared wrong or forbidden and be held against you? The most extreme case in recent memory might be the Khmer Rouge. Believing intellectuals represented a threat to their social plan for Cambodia, they sent people to the killing fields who had done nothing “wrong” at all except wear reading glasses. Fortunately, examples of the turning of the political worm are usually far less extreme, but doesn’t anyone else still remember those horrible HUAC days of the 1950’s, when people’s youthful idealism and associations of decades earlier were used as reasons to investigate them as enemies of the state? In the end, it was only the shining of the light of public attention in the famously televised Army-McCarthy hearings that halted the fear and investigative madness of that time. These are the kinds of things that we have been doing to each other since long before The Inquisition, and we’ve kept on doing them right up until the present day. To protect us from the things we do to each other under the flag is why there was a Bill of Rights created with the Constitution.
In the darkness of secret courts even trivial deviations can be declared serious transgressions that warrant draconian responses, like the HUAC on steroids. And seriously, how could not having heard anything about this kind of subversion of our system of justice taking place be considered evidence that nothing improper has been going on, when we’ve learned that just disclosing the secret court’s actions or speaking about its decisions is a crime that can actually land you in jail? Really, who’s going to be talking about it?
The ex-CIA agent who wrote the LA Times piece that precipitated this rant was basically advocating that we accept a total surveillance state in which the government keeps us safe by knowing everything we’re doing, without effective limits, and is trusted not to abuse or misuse the information it has regarding its citizens. He said the government actually has a great track record for stopping terrorism and not abusing this power. He said no one can even name a single case of abuse of the system. He spoke glowingly of the fine work that officers and agents of the intelligence community have done, are doing right now, to keep us safe from terrorism, and how Big Brother does all this for us because he loves us. And he clearly loves Big Brother.
But, considering our standard level of personal imperfection and the usual human faults that accompany our efforts to govern each other, and keeping firmly in mind the painful lessons we should have learned by now from thousands of years of political history, I find the argument “being safe from terrorism requires living in a surveillance state” totally inadequate as a justification for moving my toilet into the living room.