It’s easy to find people who are mad about one thing or another on the Internet. It’s easy to interact with them, mutually venting frustration, and it’s tempting to feel that you’ve made a difference; that your click-throughs or retweets have spread awareness around your particular cause—and you might be right! If you change the mind of even one person—to instill understanding in place of apathy, or to challenge an existing set of beliefs, then you have made a difference. But one of the risks of being mad about things on the Internet is that it can become an echo chamber for people who share the same beliefs, all preaching to the choir.
So if you believe strongly in something, your challenge is not to find others who already share your beliefs, but to find others who don’t and to help them understand what you’re worked up about. This has been my biggest problem when talking to people about mass surveillance. For every one person who thinks state spying is A-OK, there are five more who simply don’t understand the issue. My goal in this post is to lay out some conversation points I frequently use when talking to people about surveillance, and I hope you will find it useful.
One of the most dangerous things about mass surveillance is that it actually has a chilling effect on free speech. People who know they are being watched by the government are afraid to speak their opinions when they go against the political establishment. This is not just a hypothetical—this has been reported on by the UN, and recently the EFF filed testimony from 22 firsthand accounts of how NSA surveillance limited the right to association.
Consider the situation in China, where state surveillance is the rule, not the exception. Access to information is restricted by the Golden Shield Project (aka. the Great Firewall of China), Skype chats are monitored by the government, and dissidents are frequently arrested. People are afraid to speak their minds, leading to a phenomenon Dr. Ronald Deibert describes as “self-censorship” in his book Black Code.
Clearly, the situation is not as bad here in the United States, but we have reason to be concerned. We are told that the government engages in surveillance to protect us from terrorism. The problem is that recently the definition of “terrorism” has been shifting towards “anything the government doesn’t like.” Consider the following examples:
Regardless of how you feel (and the legality) of any of these examples, can you with a straight face call any of this “terrorism?” These are people who were acting out of conscience for a cause they believe deeply in and whose actions didn’t endanger any lives.
This is the problem: when the government can perform nearly complete surveillance over all digital communications, and when the government equates “terrorism” to “any kind of activism that challenges the political establishment,” you have the recipe for totalitarianism. And that’s sort of the opposite of our American values.
Is giving up our rights to free speech and privacy worth protecting us from terrorism? This might be worth discussing if mass surveillance actually protected us from anything, but it doesn’t. NSA surveillance was alive and well at the time of the Boston Marathon bombing, and the best they could do was listen in on past phone conversations to try and find out if suspect Tsarnaev’s wife was involved in the plot. In fact, NSA Director General Keith Alexander admitted to Congress that the NSA’s bulk surveillance program only stopped one or possibly two real terrorist threats (and one of them was some poor slob wiring $8000 to Al Shabaab).
Does this sound like a good use of the ten billion dollars the government spends anually on the NSA? It might if you’re one of the tens of thousands of people who work for the Agency or one of its private contractors. But let’s pause for a moment to consider some alternative ways that money could be spent.
How many Americans die every year due to terror attacks?
Let’s be extremely generous and say that, on average, 3,000 Americans die every year from terror attacks (that’s the number killed in the September 11 attacks). Now for some real statistics: on any given year, 32,000 Americans die due to drunk driving, 41,000 die due to breast cancer, and a whopping 231,000 people die from diabetes or related complications. From the numbers alone, it seems that we have more pressing issues when it comes to protecting American lives than terrorism. That ten billion dollars in the NSA’s budget could be much better spent addressing any one of them.
The government has yet to prove one credible example of a legitimate terror plot that was prevented thanks to mass surveillance. If they want to insist that spying makes us safer, this would be good information to know.
What we do know is that information collected by the NSA under their counterterrorism authority is routinely shared with the DEA, IRS, and FBI for non-terrorism-related law enforcement. Since it would be unconstitutional for these agencies to use this information in any criminal proceedings, they have offices dedicated to "parallel construction" of evidence—to literally constructing criminal cases against people by “fortuitously” happening accross other evidence, such as pulling the right car over at the right time. This evidence-laundering is concealed from judges and prosecutors (not to mention defendants).
So mass surveillance is not about terrorism (because "everything is terrorist"), and it is not about protecting us (because it doesn’t protect us). This begs the question—what, exactly, is mass surveillance good for? The unfortunate (and obvious) answer is that surveillance is only good for the people who do the surveillance.
The NSA told its people to use 9/11 as a “sound bite”. They exploited the fear and trust of the American people to push their surveillance agenda and execute a power grab, securing political dominance and a massive budget. This has led to the rise of a whole industry of private intelligence contracting companies, none of whom give a second thought to violating the rights of their fellow Americans, as long as those sweet taxpayer dollars keep rolling in.
Nobody in this picture has any incentive to admit that terrorism might not be that big of a threat, or that the damage to civil liberties and our democracy might be too great. Instead, government agencies push an increasingly authoritarian agenda to criminalize dissent (see above) and private contractors are literally paying off the senators in charge of keeping them in check.
Where does this lead us? The NSA has nearly complete surveillance ability over all domestic communications, and increasingly the government is using this power to control its employees and the press. Specifically, President Obama’s Insider Threat Program encourages government employees to report would-be whistleblowers. Simply buying certain books or DVDs is enough to put federal workers on a watch-list. The threat of ubiquitous surveillance enforces a culture of intimidation and compliance, and workers are afraid to expose government wrongdoing.
Leaks that do make it to press are prosecuted vigorously. Obama’s Justice Department even subpoenaed the work files of Fox News reporter James Rosen, accusing him of being a “co-conspirator” to a felony just by doing his job and reporting the news. A scathing report released by the Committee to Protect Journalists warns that the threat of surveillance and prosecution has made government employees unwilling to talk to journalists, which has severely limited the press’ ability to report on government matters.
If we consider aggressive press coverage of government activities being at the core of American democracy, this tips the balance heavily in favor of the government.
Fortunately, there is hope. Edward Snowden blew the lid off the mass surveillance industry, and now it’s up to the American people to clean up the mess. Sure, there are powerful and deeply-entrenched interests trying to stop us at every point along the way, but it is the job of activists to expose their corruption and wrongdoing. The way I see it, there are three main strategies, all equally valuable, that we can use to address this problem:
Over the last several months, I’ve met and conversed with many people who share my beliefs about mass surveillance. Last month, thousands of us rallied in Washington DC. The amount of passion and conviction we shared as a group gave me hope. Now it’s time to take this to the next level and convince everyone else why mass surveillance is so dangerous to our democracy! I believe that working together we can create a world without mass surveillance. So let’s do it!