Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The end of privacy

So, this past month has been a big one for government scandals.

There's Benghazi, of course -- that one's ongoing.

There is the one where the IRS targeted tea party groups for audits.  (Jon Stewart is hilarious about it.)

There's the AP phone records scandal.

Then we found out the government has access to all of Verizon's phone records -- who called whom and when -- and is tracking all this information.

And now there's PRISM.  Facebook, Google, all the big internet companies are sharing your data with the US government.

We're not supposed to worry, because they pinky-swear they won't actually look at your data unless you are either a terrorist or a foreigner.  (As per usual, the US government does not consider non-citizens to possess rights.)  But considering that none of the above was done with our knowledge and consent, what makes us assume that what we know is all there is?  If the documents hadn't been leaked, they would still be pretending they weren't accessing our data.  Now they are pretending they won't use it.  The moment they want to badly enough, I think we can safely say they will, if they haven't yet.

I am not personally concerned about this.  I mean, I am used to making a lot of my life fairly public anyway.  Though I do not at all want anyone rifling through my email account, I don't foresee anything more than embarrassment and discomfort if someone did.

But that isn't the point, as far as I can see.  The point is that the government, which supposedly works for us, considers it acceptable to decide for us how much privacy we're allowed to have.  And it also doesn't think it's necessary even to inform us of how much privacy we're allowed to have.  All these surveillance programs are so top-secret that people risk their entire livelihoods every time in order for us to find out they even exist.

I don't have anything (much) to hide.  But what if the government were doing something unjust or illegal?  Say, targeting tea party groups for tax audits, or any other of dozens of scandals we've heard of.  And say you knew about it.  Up to now, it's been fairly simple to call up a journalist, to upload the file onto the internet, and leave few to no tracks.  The more surveillance there is, the more dangerous it is to blow the whistle on corruption.  The more likely you'll be caught and thrown in jail, held without trial, treated to "enhanced interrogation," or just targeted with a drone strike.

Alarmist?  After all, you're not a terrorist, are you?

Think of it this way.  No matter what you believe, there is someone, somewhere, who thinks your beliefs are dangerous.  Believe in same-sex marriage?  You're destroying the fabric of society.  Believe in owning a gun?  You just don't care if children die.

And our government could easily go either way.  It could criminalize gun ownership.  It could criminalize same-sex relationships.  It could decide that you, personally, are an unfit parent because of your parenting choices or your background or your political opinions.  You don't know who's going to be in power in 2016 or 2020, or what laws they will put in place.  But there is always the possibility that they will criminalize something that you believe is morally right.

Up to now, you could keep your private life secret.  Now, it's anyone's guess what's private and what's not.  Did you know it is technically possible to turn your phone's microphone or your computer's webcam on without your knowledge and record what you are saying and doing right now?  If the government were doing this regularly, would it tell you?

I don't mean to scare you.  Okay, maybe I do a little bit mean to scare you.  I think it's important that we meet these actions with indignation, even if after awhile it feels like old news.  We need to fight these things in the political realm so that we never have to try to overthrow a government as powerful as ours has become.

Because this nation was supposed to be a government OF the people, BY the people, FOR the people.  This is not a bunch of kids getting mad that their parents read their journals.  We are adults and we have not consented to this level of surveillance. 

Obama has famously said, "You can't have 100 per cent security and also then have 100 per cent privacy and zero inconvenience. We're going have to make some choices as a society."  And he's right.  But we, as a society, have not agreed to the balance we have.  What is the right balance?  50% security, 50% privacy?  100% security, 0% privacy?  What do we have now -- 40% security, 10% privacy, and 50% inconvenience?  Who gets to make the decision about how much privacy we have to give up to be safe?  After all, even if we give up 100% of our privacy, we still won't be 100% safe.  Nothing can do that.  Already the odds of being killed or injured in a terrorist attack are extremely slim -- you are more likely to be struck by lightning.
Now we are faced, not with a decision whether to give up our privacy, but the revelation that our privacy has been gone for years.  We have been operating under an expectation of privacy, only to find that we have been monitored this entire time.  Even if you now start taking more care, it's already too late -- whatever the government has cared to know about you, it has saved on its own servers where you can't get to it.

You know how different countries have been able to throw off oppressive regimes by organizing on Facebook and Twitter?  The only reason they were able to do that is that the United States government chose to let them.  If you want to organize anything now -- at home or abroad -- you pretty much have to send it by personal courier, because there is no other means of communication that might not be monitored.  And if you want to tell your mom, in another state, that you are concerned with how much pot your younger brother is smoking ... maybe you'd better just wait till you see her.  If you work for a government contractor that's doing something unethical, or you know of atrocities committed by the military, and you'd like to blow the whistle ... I guess you are just going to have to go undercover in a foreign country and never see your family again.

Them's the breaks, now.  If you don't like it, maybe it's time to make a fuss about it.

Here are a few of my favorite articles I've read on the topic lately:

Why Privacy Matters Even If You Have Nothing to Hide
"Exclusion occurs when people are prevented from having knowledge about how information about them is being used, and when they are barred from accessing and correcting errors in that data... It is a structural problem, involving the way people are treated by government institutions and creating a power imbalance between people and the government. To what extent should government officials have such a significant power over citizens?"

What We Don't Know About Spying on Citizens: Scarier Than What We Do Know
"Knowing how the government spies on us is important. Not only because so much of it is illegal -- or, to be as charitable as possible, based on novel interpretations of the law -- but because we have a right to know. Democracy requires an informed citizenry in order to function properly, and transparency and accountability are essential parts of that. That means knowing what our government is doing to us, in our name. That means knowing that the government is operating within the constraints of the law. Otherwise, we're living in a police state."

All the Infrastructure a Tyrant Would Need, Courtesy of Bush and Obama
"This isn't a argument about how tyranny is inevitable. It is an attempt to grab America by the shoulders, give it a good shake, and say: Yes, it could happen here, with enough historical amnesia, carelessness, and bad luck. We're not special. Our voters won't always pick good men and women to represent us. Some good women will be corrupted by power, and some bad men will slip through. Other democracies have degraded into quasi-authoritarian states; they didn't expect that to happen until it was too late to stop. We have safeguards to prevent us from following in their footstep. Stop casting them off because you fear al-Qaeda. Stop tempting fate."

What do you think?  Am I just a tinfoil-hat-wearer for caring about this?

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