Recently, the issue of personal privacy has come to the forefront in my scholarly studies and in the consideration of important issues facing my personal life. I have written two critical books on surveillance and civil liberties in America -- and privacy has been a subject I considered only in a secondary fashion. Now, I want to begin to address it in more depth.
To begin, advances in technology within the last 20 years have put enormous strain on the preservation of privacy because government intelligence agencies (FBI and NSA) have demonstrated little hesitancy to eradicate individual privacy. In their view, Americans have no inherent right to privacy. Privacy easily can be swept aside as government gathers vast amounts of information on the people.
I surprise many of my peers by not owning a smart phone. I never have purchased one. Why? In order to protect my privacy since smart phones can function too easily as a surveillance tool. Smart phones store so much information about people and their network of relations that it seems offensive to endorse this supporting apparatus of the Surveillance Society. I insist to stand outside the Surveillance Society. It is the same reason I never have used GPS technology in my car. I would rather get lost than give up data to government about my movements.
A few days ago, I was sitting at a table drinking coffee in Whole Foods in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, and took out my cell phone to answer a call. A person nearby noticed the phone was not smart, and remarked: "He must be a Fed." Consider that comment. Silver Spring shares the border with Washington, DC, and many people living there work for the federal government. I hear from good sources that workers in sensitive positions in the U.S. government are not allowed to own smart phones because it is deemed a security risk. I guess the person seated near me thought I was one of them. But if he looked more closely, he also would have noticed that I sport a tight beard on my face. No one who works for the federal government is allowed to have a beard. I guess beards are viewed as subversive to law and order and a Godly society.
Let me try to define Privacy so the dimensions of this inquiry are clear. Privacy can be defined as “acting without being observed in any way” or the “right to be let alone.” It also involves the individual’s control over their personal information and how it is communicated to others. When government spies on people and groups, it invades their private space and makes part of it visible. How much becomes visible depends on how much surveillance is directed at subjects. FBI and NSA spying, due to dramatic technological advances, can eradicate a great deal of privacy. The government can snoop into many spheres of people’s lives, including online spaces.
Individual freedom and autonomy is at stake. When privacy is under attack, liberty suffers as subjects of surveillance are forced to live in closed, visible spaces with little place to hide from the outside world.
Of course, the problem of surveillance and the loss of privacy and freedom is not new. In the past, totalitarian and authoritarian governments imposed surveillance in order to maintain their power and control. However, we do not expect democratic governments also will impose surveillance in such a way as to threaten the autonomy of the individual.
Why would constitutional democracies, where government rule is based on the consent of the people, spy on the public in massive ways? Policymakers often say privacy is invaded in order to achieve security. They argue that striking the right “balance” between privacy and security is a legitimate goal. At the present moment, they say, the balance is tilted toward security because of the high level of danger facing the nation. This argument is insufficient because today’s Surveillance Society, itself, is thoroughly unbalanced. In fact, this balance metaphor has become a rhetorical device used by mainstream political leaders to maintain and enhance their power. Today, many of America’s elected politicians hold widespread suspicion of the people. This suspicion is based on fears the people will rebel and kick them out of power; that is, the people will cast aside existing power arrangements in favor of new ones. Government uses suspicion to maintain the status quo, suppressing popular sovereignty. The stated reason for official surveillance – to fight terrorism – is a cover for these other control goals.
America is a class society with the highest level of economic inequality in the world. There are very rich people and very poor people and a shrinking middle class straddled in between. The Surveillance Society formed in America at a time when the class divide was expanding. This is one reason the ruling class, more than others, fears Edward Snowden. His whistle blowing has the potential to unsettle the exercise power in America.
No one wants their data to be showing. But just as people with wealth have more free speech than others, the privileged economic class, too, has more privacy. While it is true that bulk "metadata" collection makes few distinctions based on class because it conducts a broad sweep of everyone, the follow-up security investigations that are subject-based, once authorities locate “suspicious” patterns, are more likely to cast lower income people as suspects for their political activity. The struggle against surveillance, and to preserve privacy, should become an urgent priority for everyone. How long before we all live in a dystopian world. Not just me, but you, too. .