One of my biggest disappointments with the current administration has been their lack of resolve in curbing the intrusion of the federal government into the private lives of citizens. In fact, not only have they failed to curb it – in a lot of instances they have expanded it.
Government surveillance has always been a tension between the need for the government to stay out of the lives of citizens and the need for the government to protect its citizens from those who would do it harm, whether it be criminals or terrorists.
But the Founding Fathers, while operating in a completely different world from the high-tech technology and surveillance world that we live in, built in protections against government intrusion, including most significantly the Fourth Amendment which gives people the right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,” prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures,” and requires warrants to be issued “upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
But we know our government violates this with impunity on a daily basis and we have generally allowed it to do so under the guise of national security and protection.
A lot of otherwise reasonable people take the attitude that if you’re not doing something wrong, you have nothing to fear. It is actually a much more potent argument than civil libertarians would like to admit. My usual rejoinder against it is the ability for the government to mistake evidence.
I often highlight the case of Brandon Mayfield who was wrongly arrested for being involved in the Madrid Subway Bombing a decade ago. It turns out that, while the FBI pulled his fingerprint from evidence on the scene, their investigation would later clear him.
How could this happen? Well it turns out that fingerprint science is not quite as scientifically foolproof as authorities would like you to believe, and we do not pull fingerprint matches on a one to one basis, but rather on a sampling of various spots. So the fingerprint actually pulled up about 15 different hits and Mr. Mayfield was one of them.
We learned a lot about fingerprint evidence from that mistake, but what we should be learning is that allowing government to have private information on us can be dangerous to our liberty and freedom – the government makes mistakes.
Even with that mistake I still think most people do not believe it could ever happen to them. The case of Michael Morton where an intruder kills his wife and he gets convicted for it just don’t resonate with people as being possible. People somehow believe that if they’re innocent they will not go to jail and that even wrongfully convicted individuals were not completely innocent of any crime.
But as I thought about it more, I think I’m using the wrong argument. We shouldn’t trust government because government makes mistakes, but rather because government has no right to get involved in our private lives, whether or not they use the information properly.
So in the way of illustrating this point, if you still believe that you have no problem with the government looking into your private life, I have a suggestion for you. You give me the email address and password to your email account. And then you give me permission to not only read your account but to publish your private emails .
Do I have any takers? Because that is essentially what you’re giving the government permission to do – get into your email accounts listen to your phone conversations and do with all as it pleases.
This is a point that Glen Greenwald made in his TedX talk from this fall, “Why Privacy Matters.”
Mr. Greenwald noted the 2009 interview by Eric Schmidt, longtime CEO of Google, whose response to criticisms about how Google handles privacy was, “If you’re doing something that you don’t want other people to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
Mr. Greenwald responded, “The people who say that, who say that privacy isn’t really important, they don’t actually believe it, and the way you know that they don’t actually believe it is that while they say with their words that privacy doesn’t matter, with their actions, they take all kinds of steps to safeguard their privacy. They put passwords on their email and their social media accounts, they put locks on their bedroom and bathroom doors, all steps designed to prevent other people from entering what they consider their private realm and knowing what it is that they don’t want other people to know.”
He noted that privacy “is so craved universally and instinctively. It isn’t just a reflexive movement like breathing air or drinking water. The reason is that when we’re in a state where we can be monitored, where we can be watched, our behavior changes dramatically. The range of behavioral options that we consider when we think we’re being watched severely reduce. This is just a fact of human nature that has been recognized in social science and in literature and in religion and in virtually every field of discipline.”
In a social situation, when you know you are being watched, most people become conscious of their every action and movement. As Mr. Greenwald puts it, they “make decisions not that are the byproduct of their own agency but that are about the expectations that others have of them or the mandates of societal orthodoxy.”
That is just a social situation; when the government is watching, it becomes even more so.
Mr. Greenwald also draws the critical lesson from George Orwell’s 1984, which is not that we believe that we will reach a state where there will be monitors in people’s homes watching every moment, but rather, “The warning that he was issuing was about a surveillance state not that monitored everybody at all times, but where people were aware that they could be monitored at any given moment.”
As Orwell wrote through his narrator, Winston Smith, “At any rate, they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live, did live, from habit that became instinct, in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard and except in darkness every movement scrutinized.”
That is the true danger. It is not just people who do something wrong that have things to hide and reasons to guard their privacy. As Mr. Greenwald, argues, this is a “very destructive” message. The first message is that “the only people who care about privacy, the only people who will seek out privacy, are by definition bad people.” Secondly he argues the “more insidious lesson” is this: “If you’re willing to render yourself sufficiently harmless, sufficiently unthreatening to those who wield political power, then and only then can you be free of the dangers of surveillance. It’s only those who are dissidents, who challenge power, who have something to worry about.”
This is what I worry about with regard to privacy and government surveillance – we are ceding our power and liberty in ways that we really don’t understand. Most people do not recognize that power they have psychologically ceded when they know someone is watching them.
Most people are not like French philosopher Michel Foucault, who was able to conceptualize that the very construct of modern surveillance is a system of power.
So yes, if we are doing nothing wrong we need to fear a society in which people can be monitored at all times, as that is likely to breed conformity, obedience and ultimately submission. So those not worried about it, feel free to post your email address and passwords as well as user names and passwords of your social media accounts, and let us see for ourselves that you have nothing you wish to hide.
—-David M. Greenwald reporting