Privacy’s Public, Government-Sponsored Death

By Harry Cheadle


Photo via Flickr user Todd Huffman

A couple months ago, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg expressed an unpopular view while hosting his regular Friday-morning radio program. “You wait, in five years, the technology is getting better, they’ll be cameras everyplace… whether you like it or not,” he said while discussing surveillance drones. “We're going to have more visibility and less privacy. I don't see how you stop that. And it's not a question of whether I think it's good or bad.”

Elsewhere, Bloomberg’s made it clear that he thinks the expansion of the surveillance state is a very good thing, and that as cops and spy agencies acquire more and more power to watch us, “our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution… have to change.” You can disagree with Bloomberg’s preference for nanny-state policies that limit personal freedoms in favor of what he thinks is the public good, but on the subject of privacy, it’s hard to argue he’s 100 percent wrong. The idea that there’s a private sphere and a public one and that the government rarely intrudes on the former is hopelessly outdated—the question we should be asking ourselves isn’t how do we stop surveillance, it’s how do we live with it.

That’s obvious from recent revelations that have emerged in the past two days. First, on Wednesday night the Guardian reported that the shadowy National Security Agency has unfettered access to Americans’ phone records—though they apparently don’t listen in on your calls, they can find out, with barely any effort, who you called, how long you talked for, and where you were when you made that call. That’s not a mistake or an illegal overreach on the NSA's part. This type of indiscriminate intelligence gathering has quietly been going on for years. “A massive surveillance net over all people,” is how Glenn Greenwald, the primary author of the Guardian article, described the government’s goal in an interview with CNN.

More of that net became visible less than 24 hours later, when the Washington Post revealed that the NSA and the FBI have been freely “extracting audio, video, photographs, emails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time” directly from the servers of major tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Skype, and AOL through a classified program called PRISM. In other words, your every twitch and keystroke online can be seen by the government. “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as your type,” according to the anonymous intelligence officer who leaked the existence of PRISM to the Post after “firsthand experience with these systems, and horror at their capabilities.”

Calling these methods Orwellian doesn’t even do them justice—in 1984, the tools Big Brother used for watching citizens mainly consisted of two-way televisions in people’s houses. Quaint, right?

If the government gathering all that data makes you mad as hell and you just can’t take it anymore, join the club: progressive organizations that have been railing against a national security state for years were circulating petitions and calling this a “scandal” even before news of PRISM broke; politicians from both sides of the aisle (mainly senators Rand Paul and Ron Wyden) have been speaking out against surveillance for some time. Justin Amash, a libertarian Republican Congressman from Michigan, is demanding that the FBI and NSA answer questions about their data-gathering processes, and the editorial board of the New York Times was enraged, writing, “The administration has now lost all credibility. Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it.”

In National Review Online, libertarian technology and privacy expert Julian Sanchez noted that the stage for this large-scale data mining was set by the Supreme Court in the 70s when it ruled that “simply by making use of technologies and services that generate records about our activities held by businesses, we abandoned any expectation that the government would not scrutinize those records.” In the same piece, Sanchez predicts that the US will no longer tolerate such flagrantly unnecessary surveillance. “The government may find it has hit the limit of the American people’s credulity here,” he concludes.

I hope he’s right about that. But no matter how outraged the internet gets, no matter how many much invective is aimed at the NSA by intelligent, rightfully pissed-off op-ed writers, I can’t imagine the tumorous, security-obsessed bureaucracies that have been growing inside the government for years are going anywhere. Congress has voted multiple times, along bipartisan lines, to give the federal government broad powers of surveillance while also letting what exactly those powers were remain secret. I don’t think any elected official lost his or her seat over those votes. Blame Obama if you need a figurehead, but as Alex Pareene of Salon wrote yesterday, the Republicans have had chances to oppose him on government surveillance—they didn’t.

Even some pundits are OK with surveillance on a large level. Writing about the collection of phone records, Andrew Sullivan said, “This kind of technology is one of the US’ only competitive advantages against jihadists. Yes, its abuses could be terrible. But so could the consequences of its absence.” That’s a line that has been repeated many times, and will probably get tossed around for years to come: if the government can’t spy on everyone all the time, here comes another 9/11. Historically, it’s been incredibly difficult politically to decrease the scope and budget of the federal government, and even more so when the government can claim it’s acting in the interests of “national security.”

Say there’s no hope of voting the surveillance state out of office. That leaves, to quote Bloomberg, the question of how we live with it. There are some ways to attempt to hide your activities online, and you could always purchase private encryption software to protect your communications. For instance, Seecrypt is a cell phone app that encrypts your texts and calls; the startup Silent Circle is also working on technology that would allow you to hide information from prying eyes.

But the legal right to encrypt files is notoriously undefined. And given what we know about the NSA’s ability to ferret out data when it wants to, it’s hard to imagine that there’s a private service out there that could really protect you from the being monitored by the government if it truly wanted to find out what you are doing.      

Most people probably won’t go through the time-consuming steps of encrypting texts and masking their IP addresses. They’ve already accepted that the concept of privacy is dead. After all, when you broadcast your location and your opinions publicly on social media, who really cares if some top-secret operative in a cave in Utah can watch your ideas form as you type? “I have nothing to hide,” you can say. “My life’s already an open book because I’m basically a law-abiding, virtuous person. Only criminals fear surveillance.” It’s not a bad way to live, actually. Once you shrug off the techno-Panopticon we live inside, you’re free to do pretty much whatever you like—argue about Mad Men plot points on Twitter, sext, make a video of your dog adorably trying to eat a fly that racks up millions of YouTube views. If any scary cyberagents are watching you, you can rest comfortably in the knowledge that they’re bored.

If privacy isn’t something we value—or, more realistically, if we accept that it’s a thing of the past—how about at least trying for transparency? The government can watch us if it wishes, but currently we can’t watch the government. The activities of our intelligence agencies are so secret, even their budgets are hidden from public view, making it impossible for us to scrutinize their efficiency the same way other government departments are scrutinized. There’s an entire universe of classified documents, directives, and programs that we know nothing about. The only way these activities come into the light of day is when they’re leaked by officials who are (take your pick) either acting courageously as whistleblowers or have an axe to grind with their superiors. All of what we know about PRISM and the NSA’s access to our phone records comes from such officials—in all likelihood, those leakers are going to be investigated and, if they’re found out, prosecuted.

Bloomberg is right. We’ve gone too far down this road to smash the cameras and restore a world where privacy and personal secrets are possible. But there should be some way to find out how we’re being watched other than occasional illegal leaks. The government is gazing into us all the time. We need a way to gaze back.

@HCheadle      

More on the surveillance state:

Is Anyone Really Surprised the NSA Is Currently Spying on Millions of Americans?

How Are We Supposed to Know What the Government Does?

The Department of Justice Secretly Spied on the Associated Press

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