Put Yourself Aside

You can back away from caring about suspicionless surveillance by arguing, “It doesn’t concern me, I have nothing to hide.” But there can’t honestly be people who have nothing to hide, right?

Doesn’t everyone watch weird porn or talk about their spouse to an ex or explore doubts about their religion or Google Katy Perry lyrics? Don’t some research suicide methods or drug rehab centers or just barely legal drugs? It can’t just be me. These are the things we may wish to hide from our boss, our spouse, our family, or our friends, but they are also the things we expect will be uninteresting to  law enforcement in comparison to graver crimes others commit. The government might have an open file on us, and it might contain all of our questionable internet and phone activity, but who cares?

Perhaps still people feel they, as individuals, are doing nothing that would ping the government’s anti-terrorism data filters. In that sense, they might rightly feel that they are not effectively being watched. But surveillance is not an individual problem—it is a group one.

Our ability to act and speak and even think freely cannot be exercised comfortably when we are constantly watched. With a slight change to the definition of words like “terrorism” or “potential threat”, whole new swathes of data might become incriminating. In a more extreme possibility, the list of crimes worthy of detection and prosecution based on aggregate collection of metadata could be expanded to include crimes like drug use or trafficking and acts of civil disobedience. Youthful indulgences or moral campaigns might become bad marks on our record.

As Wired writer Moxie Marlinspike points out, you should be able to do illegal things, sometimes. Breaching the edges of legality while hidden within a group is the mechanism by which a nation of laws evolves, as seen recently in the changes to laws regarding same-sex marriage and medical marijuana. Jim Crow laws were broken before they were banned, as were anti-sodomy laws. Society did not crumble then, nor will it, to use Marlinspike’s example, when marijuana becomes a universally legal treatment for the pains of cancer and other ailments. Marlinspike writes:

Imagine if there were an alternate dystopian reality where law enforcement was 100% effective, such that any potential law offenders knew they would be immediately identified, apprehended, and jailed. If perfect law enforcement had been a reality in Minnesota, Colorado, and Washington since their founding in the 1850s, it seems quite unlikely that these recent changes would have ever come to pass

Would there have been a massive push for medical marijuana were it not for illicit smokers discovering its painkilling effects? Patients in the nearly twenty states that have legalized medical marijuana would laugh if you suggested so. Similarly, would a vivid LGBT community have developed without people violating anti-sodomy laws for decades before they were repealed? Doubtful.

Though it might sound paranoid to imagine the United States government abusing its powers to target petty crime, many members of minority groups and protest organizations know too well that it is not beyond the United States government to cast their net too broad. Just this week, New York City Muslims filed suit against the New York City Police Department. Constant surveillance, including the recording of conversations and the collection of license plate numbers, has thwarted their efforts to gather and to practice their religion. Asad Dandia, plaintiff and leader of the group Muslims Giving Back told the ACLU:

“I am constantly frightened. What if I say the wrong thing?…Islam requires giving back to the community that which you have been given by God. I’ve done nothing wrong and yet I am unable to practice Islam fully because of what the Police Department did to me.”

It has been argued that because such surveillance has long been targeted at religious groups, civil rights activists, organized protesters, and political advocacy groups, then we should not be surprised by the NSA’s PRISM program. Really, though, I’m sure there are few who are truly “surprised” by the recent leaks. We have known for over a year that the NSA was building a massive data center, thanks in part to Wired’s March 2012 cover story. It was assumed, then, that the collected data would be culled from United States citizens.

The totality of the NSA surveillance has arrived with a whimper, even though similar things seem so dramatic in fiction like 1984, in part because of all of the sinister surveillance that preceded it. We have become somewhat jaded, inclined to a one-upmanship mentality that says, “So what if you’re being watched, I’ve known that I’m being watched for years and you never cared before.” But this is again a misguided argument, one that avoids a chance to finally get together a united front of, imagine this, right wing government-skeptics, progressive politicians, Muslim leaders, and young protesters. Though it is frustrating to wonder where the privileged opponents of suspicionless surveillance were when the practice only targeted minority groups, now is not the time to hang tightly to that grudge. Instead, it ought to be the time to engage in a bipartisan debate regarding the implications of a government (and private contractors) who can watch whomever they want, looking for traces of whatever vaguely defined threats have been defined for the time.

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