The government is collecting every kind of digital communications information about you — not just the so-called “metadata” of the location, participating phone numbers, and duration of every single telephone call made in the United States, but also the content of those phone conversations, and of emails, online chats and instant messages, and text messages.
Thanks to brave leakers and reporters who have revealed the details of two major programs, one collecting telephone information, and the other vacuuming up terabytes of data from major Internet companies (Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and more), we know all of those things are happening, with the possible — and only possible — exception of recording the phone calls. A former FBI agent told CNN back in May that phone conversations were being captured. The Associated Press was blunt in a June 15 report, paraphrasing Bruce Schneier, a cryptographer and computer-security expert: “Just assume the government collects everything.” (For an overview, see sidebar, “PRISM Primer,” by Deirdre Fulton.)
Now that we know for sure that we live in a surveillance state, where do we go from here? Of course, some people will say they already expected as much, or believed so. These new revelations aren’t for them — they’re for everyone else, who didn’t think the Panopticon had truly arrived. But now the United States itself has become 18th-century thinker Jeremy Bentham’s architectural wonder of a prison, in which inmates can be observed at each and every moment, without being sure whether they are in fact being watched just now.
Rather than dismissing the alarms about government surveillance, the public at large can no longer ignore or wish away its presence. Those fearmongerers who were rudely dismissed should take heart from The Daily Show, which in the wake of the revelations about NSA spying has introduced a new segment: “Good News! You’re Not Paranoid.”
Privacy = true self
First, a brief discussion about the importance of privacy. Many people dismiss it, saying things like “I have nothing to hide.” Beyond the oft-cited “right to be left alone” definition offered by Supreme Court Associate Justice Louis Brandeis in 1928, privacy is nothing less than the right to actually be yourself.
Surveillance — intrusion on privacy — affects human psychology and action. It is the ultimate infringement on personal freedom, because it exploits an instinctual weakness of humans. When we’re in private, we do things freely, as our true selves; when we’re being watched, we change our behavior.
The principle Bentham articulated in 1787 is simple: “Observation and fear of detection ensures compliance,” as author Charlie Canning summarized it. Think about it yourself (privately): Is there absolutely nothing you would do differently in your entire life if your partner, parent, child, boss, and best friend were watching at all times? Now expand that audience to include the only power that can by the force of arms deprive you of your freedom — the government. (There are several other important related problems; see sidebar “Debunking ‘Nothing to Hide.’ ”)