Category Archives: privacy
The “Nothing To Hide” Defense — A Not Altogether Thoughtful Position That Forfeits Freedoms In An NSA Age
Or… How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the New Stasi
Sometimes I become so frustrated with a circumstance or a discussion/debate/argument that I have to continue to play it out by writing out the conclusion. I become frustrated when what should be a simple intellectual joust in pursuit of understanding or clarification devolves into confrontation. I’m always unsatisfied with that outcome, and I have to play out the scenario to its end. Thus follows…
It was a cold, brisk, wintery-rainy evening this past Saturday set alight by a Holiday Party amongst friends. For an hour, I wandered the crowd hugging, kissing, and smiling. Eventually I completed my rounds and found the food table filled with gourmet treats. While contemplating the choices, I overheard one of my more genteel friends pronounce an opinion robustly and openly. She, an always tanned, world traveler and cruise fanatic, was discussing with one of my more intellectual friends, an international businessman.
“Well, I’ve got nothing to hide, so I really could not care.” I instantly knew the topic and the position she had taken… and to me this was like hearing the starting gun for a thoroughbred at the Belmont Stakes. “What!,” I retorted uninvitedly. “You have got to be kidding; having nothing to hide has nothing to do with your right to privacy and your freedoms!,” I quipped. And, I was off!
The topic, of course, was about the recent revelations of the NSA snooping on American’s cellphone calls, international calls, world leader’s calls, etc. And the comment was a defense of this government snooping activity: the “Nothing To Hide” defense.
It was a very frustrating and disappointing “conversation.” It has to be in quotes because it wasn’t a conversation, not a discussion, not even a debate. You must both listen to each other and refute the stated points for a discussion to occur. “Oh, come on, I don’t want to hear it,” was the greeting to my comment.
I asserted, “Freedom is risky. If you want total security, you want to have a totalitarian society.” “That is absurd,” came promptly. “You don’t mind having your calls monitored or tracked because you think you have nothing to hide, which misses the point, but that’s the mentality of Russia and the former Soviet Union… that if you’re innocent, then you have nothing to hide, that one is guilty until proven innocent, while here we are innocent until proven guilty. If you are presumed innocent then no one has a right to track you and your calls or monitor you until you become suspected of engaging in illicit acts and a court order has been obtained.”
“We are talking about Terrorists for God Sake! Not some intellectual rant about Russia,” shot my way. To which I responded, “Yes, you want to be safe, but you are willing to give up your freedoms for security, and I happen to agree with Eisenhower when he said,” and I was halted in my tracks with a loud interruption. “Listen dear we are talking about protection from horrible terrorists.” “Yes, but that’s my point, and I still refer to what Eisenhower said when he,” and I was again stopped in my tracks. “You just don’t get it.” “I do, but I want to make my point with what Eisenhower said.” “We have been harmed by terrorists and must do what must be done to protect ourselves.” “Well, Eisenhower said…” “Oh! Enough, who cares?” “ Well, I do, and I want to make my point.” Another interruption, “How can you justify not taking precautions?!” “Are you gonna let me tell you?” Another interruption. “Are you gonna let me tell you?” Interruption. “Are you gonna let me tell you?” Interruption. “So, you really aren’t going to let me make my point?” “No, I’m not. Who cares what Eisenhower said. He wasn’t dealing with terrorists!”
“Ugh, you’re just being a Liberal!” was lobbed as an insult grenade as she turned on her heals and angrily darted away and into another small group where she ranted promptly about me, in what I was informed was a rather uncomplimentary complaint, to a fellow conservative (former advisor and aide to our recent republican governor) — ironically enough, one who knows how to discuss such matters respectfully without relinquishing her position. As she turned and ran, I rejoined sufficiently loud, “It’s not a matter of being Liberal or conservative; it’s just that I value my freedoms and rights. You may not deserve your freedoms, but I deserve mine.”
We made amends, though, as friends do. Yet, the situation still ate at me with disappointment. I will and do assert my views strongly, but I also enjoy hearing an opposed view and even more so their reasoning. I especially enjoy the back and forth attempt to understand or make one’s point in an attempt to convince. Sometimes that can be an energized or passionate attempt on my part, but it is never dismissive or rude. I may not give ground, but I don’t attempt to seize it, either. That is an important difference in “conversation.”
This is what President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in regards to the pursuit of extreme security in a free society:
“If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking… is freedom.”
I should have also offered this Eisenhower quip:
“May we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.”
I said correctly that “The War On Terror Is America’s Mania” in my July 22, 2013 posting to Faustian urGe, “Freedom Is Not Free — Risk In The Age After 9/11 & The Snowden Revelations.”
The above encounter and this topic, specifically, came at an interesting time, as more revelations from the Snowden NSA release showed that while it had been publicly admitted that the NSA recorded contacts and length of calls and locations of Americans on US soil, the truth is that American phone calls are being monitored for content, etc while they are traveling internationally. It was revealed that NSA monitors and records such calls in a vast net of internationally based calls and inevitably ensnares US citizens’ phone calls when they travel internationally. We are to be assured that these are syphoned out upon learning that a US citizen is the one being monitored. Really? OK.
We Deserve Our Freedoms Even If We Have Nothing to Hide
Even I, the “Liberal,” can appreciate the wisdom of Ronald Reagan when he said to us,
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
Today, it seems that many Americans have forgotten this important lesson. And nowhere is the lack of knowledge and common sense of the American populace more apparent than as regards our collective response to the NSA revelations.
One retort to my genteel woman friend above I would have liked to deliver in response to, “We are talking about Terrorists for God Sake!,” would have been to the effect of: Terrorists are about terrorizing and thereby winning. Which is to say that if they instigate self-immolating fears that prompt a society to take actions harmful to the self, then they have won. That is the focus of terrorism. They cannot win by military defeat such as Germany triumphing over Poland in WWII, so they act in a manner that makes a “Poland” destroy itself. Or here, to make the US forfeit its most cherished quality: Freedom.
Thus, when Americans act out of fear and retreat to “security” as their overriding concern, they risk forfeiting many of the hard-won freedoms we have historically enjoyed. Americans will tolerate “snooping” and clear invasions of privacy and reduction of rights and freedoms because over privacy, rights, and freedoms, they are afraid of losing life (terrified).
Once upon a time, Americans would have said, “Give me Liberty or give me death!”
Today, the American mantra seems to be, “Give Up Your Liberty Or We’re All Gonna Die!”
Today, we seem to meekly yowl, writhe in painful fear, and willfully and willingly hand over our freedoms for a promised sense of safety.
I find this reaction disappointing and unacceptable.
As was said of those taking the “Nothing To Hide” argument regarding NSA activities,
“These fellow citizens of ours don’t care about their constitutionally protected freedoms because they don’t understand them or the consequences of losing them. And if you don’t care about a freedom, you’re sure to lose it.”
— Floyd Brown, a political appointee in the Reagan campaigns and consultant to the Bush, Dole, and Forbes presidential campaigns
The terrorists have won. And we have helped them to defeat us.
A handful of terrorist thugs destroy some of our iconic buildings and tragically kill three thousand people, and we willing trade away our rights because we have not the fortitude to earn and defend our freedoms, as freedom entails risk. Exposure to to risk is the cost of freedom… it is the deeper truth behind the trite cliché that “Freedom Is Not Free.” Indeed. And that was the point of my original post about risk in the age after 9/11. The point isn’t that we should not respond by taking precautionary measures. Risk and security must be balanced to achieve safety while preserving freedoms, not just as many as we can but all our freedoms.
We defeat terrorism by not succumbing to it.
Every single year more than 11,000 firearm-related homicide deaths occur in the United States. Each year! Yet, we mightily protest that restrictions cannot be legislated because this would intolerably infringe on our constitutional rights! Yet, after one single (and yes, horrific) attack in which less than a third of these casualties occurred, we toss away our rights and freedoms… seemingly, glibly. I find this disturbing and beneath a great society.
Now, don’t get me wrong about the loss of life on 9/11. I watched the second plane hit the tower live on television, and I wept as I saw the close up images of people jumping and falling out of the World Trade Center. At the time, I sat on the Board of Directors of an organization based in New York City, and I cried on the phone with my employees as they relayed to me what they saw outside their office windows, as they watched their friends and associates dying just down the street in the crushing inferno.
But in the scheme of things, this is what happened. We reacted… and overreacted. We invaded a country that never threatened us and killed more than 100,000 innocent civilians. We fearfully forfeited some of our highest freedoms that are constitutionally guaranteed. World War I started from a simple terrorist assassination of a European royal, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. An overreaction occurred. An entire continent went to war. Sometimes events cause reactions far out of proportion, and we must be on guard to measure ourselves and our actions.
We may simply look at history to understand why…
“I’m not worried about NSA. Got nothing to hide & want to stay safe.” This is the sentiment of millions of Americans who sincerely believe they have nothing to worry about. They don’t think they’ve committed a crime, and therefore they’re comfortable allowing the NSA, Barack Obama, the CIA, and the FBI to know their whereabouts, personal email, text conversations and more.
I get it. None of us want to be blown up by al Qaeda.
The operational specifics of Prism and other NSA programs are still mostly classified. We have little knowledge of how the government snooping machine actually works. They claim to not listen to cellphone calls, but can we be sure? Machines can listen to millions of calls and report to humans. Government claims not to be reading emails, but we know they collect the emails… to be read later? Only the most naive believe the government doesn’t lie.
Americans, or citizens of any free society, have a right to know what information their government is collecting about them, and we should have the opportunity to correct mistaken information.
The Founding Fathers Agree
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Today our email and documents saved in “the cloud” and our cellphone conversations are the modern equivalent of our “papers and effects.” We have the right to expect that they’ll be protected from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
I am not happy to let these long-protected and universally-understood civil liberties disappear with hardly a whimper or protest. Even if I have nothing to hide, I cannot forfeit freedoms for which generations of Americans fought and died just because I refuse to stand up and protest… even when standing in front of a valued friend.
Privacy is a basic human need: Implying that only the dishonest have need of privacy ignores a basic characteristic of the human psyche and creates a built-in conflict. Humans have a fundamental need for privacy. I lock the door when I go to the men’s room, despite the fact that nothing secret happens in there. I have a fundamental need to do so, and any society must respect that fundamental need for privacy. In every society that doesn’t, citizens have responded with subterfuge and created their own private areas out of reach of the governmental surveillance, not because they are criminal, but because doing so is a fundamental human need.
Less than fifty years ago, if you were born a homosexual, you were criminal from birth. If today’s surveillance level had existed in the 1950s and 60s, the lobby groups for sexual equality could never have formed; it would have been just a matter of rounding up the organized criminals (“and who could possibly object to fighting organized crime?”). If today’s surveillance level had existed in the 1950s and 60s, homosexuality would still be illegal and homosexual people would be criminals by birth. It is an absolute necessity to be able to maintain privacy for society to progress and question its own values, in order to learn from mistakes and move on as a society.
On the surface, it seems easy to dismiss the nothing-to-hide argument: Everybody probably has something to hide from somebody. Everyone is guilty of something or has something to conceal. All one has to do is look hard enough to find what it is.
Canadian privacy expert David Flaherty expressed a similar idea when he argues: “There is no sentient human being in the Western world who has little or no regard for his or her personal privacy; those who would attempt such claims cannot withstand even a few minutes’ questioning about intimate aspects of their lives without capitulating to the intrusiveness of certain subject matters.”
Such responses attack the nothing-to-hide argument mostly at its extreme form. In a less extreme form, the nothing-to-hide argument refers not to all personal information but only to the type of data the government is likely to collect. In most cases, very few persons will see the information, and it won’t be disclosed to the public. Thus, some might argue, the privacy interest is minimal, and the security interest in preventing terrorism is much more important. In this less extreme form, the nothing-to-hide argument would seem to be a formidable one. But, it only seems that way.
The nothing-to-hide argument stems from faulty assumptions about privacy and its value — that privacy is about hiding bad things. Privacy is also about the “good things.”
Privacy creates a safe sphere in which we may engage in the machinations that create free democracy and diverse opinions. Without that safe sphere of privacy extended to its fullest, we are likely to grow more inhibited from full expressions of our selves, our views, and our values… for fear that if not now, then eventually this may be turned against us in the future. As the computer-security specialist Schneier aptly notes,
…the nothing-to-hide argument stems from a faulty “premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong.” Surveillance, for example, eventually inhibits desirable and lawful activities as free speech, free association, and other First Amendment rights essential for democracy.
Total Information Surveillance of Society Is Problematic…
- A potential problem with the government’s harvest of personal data is “exclusion.” 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. This kind of information processing, which blocks subjects’ knowledge and involvement, is a “due-process” problem — and we are all constitutionally guaranteed due process under the law. 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? Especially in this age when information is often more powerful than money or arms. This issue isn’t about what information people want to hide but about the power and the structure of government… and the balance of power between the governed and those who govern.
- Yet another problem with government gathering and use of personal data is “distortion.” For example, suppose government officials learn that a person has bought a number of books on how to manufacture methamphetamine. That information makes them suspect that he’s building a meth lab. What is missing from the records is the full story: The person is writing a novel about a character who makes meth. When he bought the books, he didn’t consider how suspicious the purchase might appear to government officials, and his records didn’t reveal the reason for the purchases. Should he have to worry about government scrutiny of all his purchases and actions? Should he have to be concerned that he’ll wind up on a suspicious-persons list? Even if he isn’t doing anything wrong, he may want to keep his records away from government officials who might make faulty inferences from them. He might not want to have to worry about how everything he does will be perceived by officials nervously monitoring for criminal activity. He might not want to have a computer flag him as suspicious because he has an unusual pattern of behavior.
- Then we have the problem of “accretion.” Privacy is often threatened not by a single shocking act of overreach or abuse, but by the slow accretion of a series of relatively minor acts. In this regard, privacy problems mimic certain environmental harms that happen over time through a series of small acts by different persons and entities. Although society is more likely to respond to a major oil spill, gradual pollution by a multitude of sources creates worse problems, especially when taken as a whole.
Privacy is rarely lost all at once. It usually erodes over time, dissolving almost imperceptibly until we eventually start to notice how much has been lost. Each step we lose our rights and freedoms may seem incremental, but after a while, the government will be watching and knowing everything about us.
“My life’s an open book,” people might say. “I’ve got nothing to hide.” But the truth is that now the government has large dossiers of everyone’s activities, interests, reading habits, finances, and health.
- What if the government leaks the information to the public?
- What if the government mistakenly determines that based on your pattern of activities, you’re likely to engage in a criminal act (as warned in “Minority Report”)?
- What if it denies you the right to fly?
- What if the government thinks your financial transactions look suspect or just odd—even if you’ve done nothing wrong—and freezes your accounts?
- What if the government doesn’t protect your information with adequate security, and an identity thief obtains it and uses it to defraud you?
Even if you have nothing to hide, the government can cause you a lot of harm.
Is The Free Selection Of Our Future Leaders Threatened?
More prescient and disturbing, is the possibility — nay, probability — that this information will be used by government interests (or in the interests being served by government) to derail the rising political aspirations of an individual perceived as undesirable by those controlling the information or by those for whom the information holders are serving.
- Don’t like a rising Bill Clinton? Easy to gather the info at hand and create a scenario desired and release the info through surrogates to destroy any candidacy before they are even the candidate.
- Want to stop a Tea Party rising star like Ted Cruz? Sabotage him with gathered info…even if none of it reveals illegal activity or information per se.
- Or just gather all the Facebook postings of anyone younger than 30 to be able to reveal in any one of our future leaders all kinds of embarrassing personal pictures or comments made in youth or before maturation or that’s just really no one else’s true concern or right to know.
- But the government can also harm people inadvertently, due to errors or carelessness., and this powerful fact must not be borne lightly.
The nothing-to-hide argument speaks to superficial problems but not to the prescient others. It represents a singular and narrow way of conceiving of privacy, and ignores consideration of the other problems often raised with government security measures.
The trade off between privacy and security is a false one…false at our founding and false today.
“If you’ve got nothing to hide,” many people say, “you shouldn’t worry about government surveillance.” Others argue that we must sacrifice privacy for security. They base their position on mistaken views about what it means to protect privacy and the costs and benefits of doing so.
The debate between privacy and security has been framed incorrectly as a zero-sum game in which we are forced to choose between one value and the other. Why can’t we have both? Protecting privacy isn’t fatal to security measures, but it does involve proper and adequate oversight and regulation.
NSA Snooping: The War on Terror Is America’s Mania
I’ve voted for him as President twice. He prevented a world-wide depression. He signed the Recovery Act of 2009 launching a transition to a clean energy economy, doubling our renewable power, and financing unprecedented investments in energy efficiency and technology research. He instituted what I have worked to see in the U.S. for decades, nearly universal health insurance with no denials. He shut down our immoral war on Iraq. He removed “Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell” so gays may militarily serve their country with honor. He led us to the point where the Supreme Court allowed federal recognition of same-sex marriages, allowing many of us, including myself, to feel as citizens with actual rights for the first time. He has been a transformative president.
President Obama is also one of my greatest political disappointments.
He has not shut down the failed war in Afghanistan. He failed in his attempts to shut down the illegal, unethical, and immoral Guantanamo Bay where we imprisoned a total of 779 “detainees” for “indefinite detention,” and where we still imprison 166 persons. He continues escalated use of drone attacks that have killed many innocent victims and likely helped create more terrorists. And, now there is PRISM — a clandestine mass electronic surveillance data mining program operated by the United States National Security Agency (NSA) since 2007…
PRISM IS AS PRISM DOES
PRISM began as an adjunct to The Enabling Act… uh, I mean Patriot Act… in 2007 with passage of the Protect America Act under the Bush Administration, and we know now that it has been dramatically and dangerously expanded under Obama. The program is operated under the supervision of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court, or FISC) pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Its existence was leaked several months ago by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who warned that the extent of mass data collection was far greater than the public knew and included what he characterized as “dangerous” and “criminal” activities.
Published internal documents identified several technology companies as participants in the PRISM program, including Microsoft joining in 2007, Yahoo! joining in 2008, Google joining in 2009, Facebook joining in 2009, Paltalk joining in 2009, YouTube joining in 2010, AOL joining in 2011, Skype joining in 2011, and Apple joining in 2012.
Subsequent disclosures included that the NSA could unilaterally perform “extensive, in-depth surveillance on live communications and stored information” including email, video and voice chat, videos, photos, voice-over-IP chats (such as Skype), file transfers, and social networking details; further, the NSA engaged in “hacking” civilian infrastructure networks in other countries such as “universities, hospitals, and private businesses.” Further releases showed the U.S. had data-mined even the United Nations and offices of our European allies.
FREEDOM IS NOT FREE
I’ve truly grown weary of this trite, generic resort to mimicked patriotism: “Freedom is not free.” I don’t believe most Americans understand the truth behind this phrase and, in fact, get it largely wrong when they make the attempt.
Let me just say that, indeed, “freedom is not free.” Freedom has a cost. It should cost us when we say we will go to war to “fight for our freedom” — or, more to the point contemporarily, protect our oil interests and execute the vendetta of a sitting present whose father was the target of an assassination plan. It should cost us all in blood and in treasure…if the battle is worth engaging. It is the cost against which we would balance any “benefit” of war and violence.
This cost — this payment for freedom — should have meant that many American families — rich and poor… lower, middle, and upper class… urban, suburban and rural — were sending sons and daughters into harms way to protect our perceived “freedoms,” while it should have cost the rest of us the money to fight this war “for freedom.” But that didn’t happen. Mostly poorer, less-educated families tossed their kids into battle, and no taxes were specifically raised or public-financed bond issues bought by citizens.
So, it’s just a trite phrase because most Americans paid nothing for our recent war ventures (our continuing “War Against Terror”) in terms of blood and in terms of treasure…nope, we just put it on the credit card with no sacrifice and let “kids with no future” fight the battles. This freedom most Americans wanted and got for free. The poorer, less educated kids fighting who lost limbs, mental stability, careers… they paid and continue to pay, as will our children who will have to pay off our war credit cards.
Truth is that, in a more meaningful concept, freedom is not free…it has another cost: risk.
True freedom means you live in an open society with free movements and communications and protections through the Constitution. True freedom means risk. It means you are exposed and that this is a good thing. It means that free persons are always at risk from others who may take advantage of our freedoms and hurt us. It is a balance the brave used to proudly accept as the exception in the world.
This other and perhaps most important area where we see the “freedom is not free” cliché ignored or misunderstood is with the freedom we forfeited for a smidgen more of actual safety and “sense of safety” from the bad international guys as we permitted the Patriot Act and other freedom-robbing laws to be enacted and which effectively nullified some of our guaranteed constitutional freedoms.
A free society means that we may walk down a street without a police battalion present and talk on our cell phones without being monitored and, thus, at risk for someone coming up and hitting us with a kidney punch. That’s the opposite of the non-free, fully monitored and protected society where no one could hostilely run up to you in a public crowd because there is such police presence around, where you chat on the cell phone while your calls are monitored for transmission to whom and where and for how long… where, no one can “hurt” you. In this opposite world, you are no longer in a truly free society, but you do feel safe… whether actually you are or not.
Truth is freedom means risk. It means being exposed to the glory of sunlight and free movement, association, and communication. It means you are vulnerable and know that this is an acceptable price because “Freedom Is Not Free!”
Modern America has grown risk averse and willingly forfeited freedoms of privacy, movement, communications and protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.
Fly anywhere lately and have to remove shoes, get scanned, confine travel products to certain sizes, stand in security for an hour? Take a bus or train anywhere and be monitored and checked for danger? Drive your car on interstate highways with pole-mounted cameras or police car-mounted cameras that are snapping millions of license plates daily and recording the information and movements? Talk on your cell phone recently, now knowing that all your calls are being recorded for contacts and length of duration? Send an email or post to Facebook while now knowing that it’s stored in central federal data banks?
Americans couldn’t handle the price — the risk — of freedom and gave it up for perceived safety. But, as Benjamin Franklin said, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
It seems we Americans have grown unworthy of our central precepts of freedoms and unworthy of the freedoms themselves…because we are unwilling to pay the cost of freedom: blood, treasure, and risk.
As I said to a friend who is very casual about loss of their freedoms from NSA surveillance (because, ostensibly, “they’ve got nothing to hide”):
“You may not want or deserve your freedoms, but I do want and deserve my freedoms… They are guaranteed to me as a Right, and I want them back.”
An insightful article about our American truth comes from outside, from a nation that also once forfeited its freedoms for security: Germany…
NSA Snooping: The War on Terror Is America’s Mania
A Commentary By Klaus Brinkbäumer
SPIEGEL INTERNATIONAL (German News Magazine)
The NSA spying scandal shows that America’s pursuit of terrorists has turned into a mania. Spying on citizens is as monstrous and unlawful as Guantanamo Bay and drone warfare. The German government’s response has been woefully weak.
America is sick. September 11 left it wounded and unsettled — that’s been obvious for nearly 12 years — but we are only now finding out just how grave the illness really is. The actions of the NSA exposed more than just the telephone conversations and digital lives of many millions of people. The global spying scandal shows that the US has become manic, that it is behaving pathologically, invasively. Its actions are entirely out of proportion to the danger.
Since 2005, an average of 23 Americans per year have been killed through terrorism, mostly outside of the US. “More Americans die of falling televisions and other appliances than from terrorism,” writes Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, and “15 times as many die by falling off ladders.” The US has spent $8 trillion on the military and homeland security since 2001.
America has other threats. The true short-term danger is homegrown:
- More than 30,000 Americans are killed by firearms every year.
- An American child is 13 times more likely to be shot than a child in another industrialized country.
When it comes to combating the problem, President Barack Obama and Congress are doing very little — or, to be fair, nothing at all. They talk about it every now and then, after every killing spree. The gun lobby, incurably ill, counters that the weapons are necessary for self-defense.
And when it comes to real long-term dangers, such as climate change, America, its prime perpetrator, does nothing — or, to be fair, too little too late.
As Monstrous as Guantanamo
All of this is not to say that terrorism doesn’t exist: 9/11 happened, and al Qaida is real. But spying on citizens and embassies, on businesses and allies, violates international law. It is as monstrous and as unlawful as Guantanamo Bay, where for 11 and a half years, men have been detained and force-fed, often without evidence against them, many of whom are still there to this day. It is as unlawful as the drones that are killing people, launched with a mere signature from Obama.
There has been virtually no political discussion about all of this. Attacks have been prevented through the spying program — Obama says it, German Chancellor Angela Merkel says it, and we have to believe them. Voters and citizens are akin to children, whose parents — the government — know what is best for them.
But does the free America that should be defended even still exist, or has it abolished itself through its own defense?
An American government that gives its blessing to a program like Prism respects nothing and no one. It acts out its omnipotence, considers itself above international law — certainly on its own territory and even on foreign ground. The fact that it’s Obama behaving in such a way is bleak. If this were happening during the administration of George W. Bush, we could at least think, “It’s just Bush. He’s predictable. There is a better America.” Now we know: There is only one America. Did Obama, the Harvard Law student, even believe what he was saying in his speeches about the return of civil liberties? Can someone be so cynical that they promise to heal the world, then act in such a way all the while giving the xenophobic explanation that only foreigners would be monitored? Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela are Obama’s role models. What would they say?
The Stasi Comparison Stands
The German government has shown devastating weakness. Merkel should say, “You are manic, and what you are doing is sick.” That’s what friends do. Instead she weighs every word to avoid annoying the Americans. She said that a comparison between the NSA and the Stasi is inappropriate, but she’s wrong. A comparison doesn’t require that two things be identical. The Stasi destroyed families, the NSA probably not. But the use of technology, the careful nurturing of the image of the enemy, the obsessive collection of data, the belief of being on the right side, the good side: Is there really no resemblance?
Angela Merkel promised to defend the German people from harm. To have your phone wiretapped and accept the fact that every one of your emails could be monitored — the violation of the private sphere — that qualifies as harm.
Every voter knows that realpolitik can be ugly, because politics require the balancing of many considerations. The decisive question is: What greater good justifies this breach of law by the US and the cooperation of German agencies? It is time for answers.
Somehow missed the memo? Here’s why the Patriot Act is important to ordinary citizens…
USA PATRIOT ACT of 2001, also known as “Patriot Act:”
- (Full Title) Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001
ENABLING ACT of 1933, also known as “Ermächtigungsgesetz:”
- (Full Title) Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the State
Especially after having just posted about the interconnectedness of the world through Facebook, I found this article to be exceedingly interesting and relevant. What does today’s modern interconnectivity do to the American Psyche
Stop Shopping and Start Thinking
A while back a friend told me about a graffiti artist in New York City who’d been covering subway and building walls with a simple declarative statement: Stop shopping and start thinking! This is particularly interesting since we are now approaching the season to shop and shop and shop and shop. It also made me wonder what he was suggesting we actually think about. And perhaps more importantly, what we were doing instead of thinking.
So, more than half-way across the country, I went into town and I spent a day watching people. I observed them on the street, in stores, in restaurants, on television, at gas stations. A typical group of young people (anywhere from approximately 10 years of age to 20) walked in much the same way a school of herring swim, in a huddle, somehow sensing one another’s movements, veering left, then right without much in the way of verbal communication because every one of them was either wearing an iPod or had a cell phone planted on one ear.
What I noticed overall, regardless of age group, was that the more crowded the environment and stimulating the situation, the less interpersonal the interaction between us. People distracted by brightly lit window displays or by robotic massage chairs or hundred-foot long displays of plasma television screens had very little to do with one another, even if they were “together.” Many walked about with glazed eyes and slightly open mouths, trance-like. I am not aware of any research to validate or refute this observation, but it is what I saw.
So, the graffiti artist who bade us to start thinking must have been seeing more or less what I saw — a world rapidly becoming disconnected and insensate from the onslaught of stimulation that is part and parcel of modern life.
It’s no secret that telecommunications have changed the world in which we live. There’s more information, more excitement, more scandal, more sensory overload and more crisis than ever before. Seventy-five years ago in a small town, you could spend a whole day, a whole week without knowing much more than the day or week before.
Big things — like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the death of a neighbor or the arrival of the new doctor– made themselves known quickly enough. And people responded as necessary. They enlisted in the army or paid their respects or went for an exam as need be. But there were long periods of time that were left unfilled.
Not that there was nothing to do. There was always plenty to do. But it was plenty of one thing or maybe two, like getting the field plowed or fixing the roof, or going to work and coming home, not lists of 20, 30 or 40 things to do. Our ancestors were different in many ways, but perhaps the most significant distinction is that they had a lot less information to manage in one bite and a lot less to worry about. Crises happened, but they happened rarely. Now, crisis is constant. The critical state is the nominal one.
Managing Terror: The Price of Over-Stimulation and Viral Fear
We live in a very quiet section of New Mexico. I can remember vividly how people responded when I told them I was moving out of one of the most intellectually and culturally intense metropolitan areas in the world and that I’d be a living about a half hour out of the nearest city with only Indian reservation and mountains between.
Almost all of them asked, “But what’ll you do? It’ll be so quiet!”
“Precisely,” I replied.
The quiet was what I wanted, a quiet so deep that I could hear each star blink to life as it filled the sky at night, or locate barn owls from the sound of their wings opening as they swooped off my roof after field mice, or the harrumph of the sun as it lifted itself lazily over the horizon in the morning. I’d had enough of city and suburban living with its endless traffic jams and movie lines and white noise.
I told a friend that I thought it was the speed of urban life that had pushed me over the edge. Everything was always so fast and my nature was to respond to that. Interestingly, he suggested that it wasn’t just the speed that was the problem. He said it was the overall level of stimulation.
Speed is only one part of a world that is spinning us out of control. On top of being pounded through all five senses, we are increasingly pressured on a psychological level: pseudo-intimacy, over-exposure (both physical and emotional), intensity, frustration, pressure to complete multiple tasks simultaneously, complexity and confusion of social expectations, and fluidity of social roles. It comes to this: We don’t know precisely what we are supposed to do or be, but we’re supposed to do and be a lot of it.
In becoming technologically connected, the world has not only become smaller it has become more forceful, pressing in on us in our cars, our bedrooms, our bathrooms and worst of all, in the most private parts of our minds. Our brains are being altered, perhaps irrevocably.
And nothing changes the brain quite the way fear does. It has even been suggested by Bruce Lipton, a cellular biologist, that violence and fear can alter DNA. In brain scan studies, they have found that with persistent exposure to discordant and fearful stimuli distinct changes occur in the limbic system, particularly the amygdala. In simple terms, it gets bigger as the executive portions of the brain responsible for judgment and planning become smaller. If the evolutionists are right (and I both doubt and pray they are not), then it seems we are rapidly becoming lizards.
Fear has become so embedded in our culture we no longer notice it as fear. We see it as thrill. One Walt Disney theme park — a place that was created as a small paradise for children and an escape for the young at heart — now boasts a ride called The Tower of Terror. Can you imagine? “Daddy, after we see Mickey Mouse can we go on the terror ride?” How do you fit those two things together? I don’t think they were made to go together, especially in children.
The Addicted American
Americans have always been a brave, brazen group. While most of us are religious or at least spiritual and the vast majority are incredibly generous, we are also a culture of iconoclasts and take some delight in upsetting the old order of things, splitting open the delicately jeweled egg just to see what’s inside, racing across a forbidden continent to see who can get to the rocky coastline first.
Consider that sort of person, the individual with those qualities. Now consider that individual over time as there are fewer and fewer old orders to overthrow, fewer and fewer gods to shatter against temple walls. The energy of that person, the forces at work in him have not been changed and as a result they must find some other outlet.
When we run out of continent, we must conquer space. When we run out of new fun, we must generate danger. We have become a nation of thrill addicts unable to be still or just be. So what do we do? I think we do what our graffiti artist said. We stop thinking and we shop. We are compelled to consume. And how do corporate interests stimulate this? With fear. (If we don’t buy X or Y, we will be social outcasts, in terrible danger, at risk for derision or disease.)
Thrill and Fear
Thrill and fear are kissing cousins. And in many ways our thrill seeking (whether that’s insane roller-coaster rides that test the laws of physics or bungee jumping or staying glued to entertainment TV to stay informed about the latest scandal) is a defense against the constant pressure and fear we are fed by a media that is in our lives 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
By going to horror movies, by subscribing to the Fear Channel, by watching beheadings on the internet, we have found ways to manage our terror at a distance, to experience fear in controllable milieus so we can convince ourselves that we have some broader control in the world. It is delusional. And in a world filled with conflicts only a trigger finger away from an international conflagration, this is also terribly risky.
Fear That Won’t Stop: What That Means to a Country at War
Soldiers stand at the front line of modern fear cultures. While they take the worst of it for us, presumably they are also more prepared for the exigencies of battle and taught to be what is termed “stress hardy.”
In many cases, this is true. Soldiers can do their tours of duty and return suffering less emotional damage than most civilians would experience under similar circumstances. However, a large and growing number of our soldiers are returning with incapacitating post-traumatic stress disorder, which, loosely explained, is a syndrome of chronically acute fear.
Chronic and acute are usually mutually exclusive, but in this case we see them bonded, and that is in fact the pathology — an intense fear that simply will not go away. It is as if the off switch has been removed. But what these soldiers offer us in their awful suffering is the ability to see in crystalline form what is going on in us at a broader, more subtle cultural level.
When fear is relentless, several things happen to us: We lose judgment, we become insensate, our startle response is either grossly diminished or harshly exaggerated, we are stuck in arousal, we can’t recognize safety signals (the cues that tell us when we don’t have to be scared anymore), we’re always on guard or conversely we’re fearless when we shouldn’t be and because of our numbness engage in stunts of increasing risk, we are unable to sleep and walk through our days with a sense of impending doom. We become irrational. We lose conscious control of our responses. We startle easily and simultaneously lose a necessary and rational responsiveness. We freeze.
Characteristics of Good Soldiers
If I were building an army, I would look for certain qualities in my servicemen and women. I would want them neither terrified nor inured, neither overly zealous (sic: murderous) nor bored. I would be horrified if I were a commander and had to stand before a battalion of men and women whose eyes were glazed over and whose expressions revealed minds that had gone dark.
Rather, I would look to recruit individuals who could think clearly and quickly, who were motivated more by honor and courage than benumbed fearlessness or thrill-seeking. I would not be averse to seeing some fear. All good soldiers and their commanders are sometimes afraid. But they do what must be done, because it must be, not because it’s an antidote to feeling or another ride in their own personal amusement park. No rational general wants an army of psychopaths or zombies.
When I think of a true army, I think of the potpourri that was Tolkein’s band of warriors, all courageous and committed, all honest and honorable, at times afraid but not fearful, emboldened by their belief in their mission but not mad or indiscriminate, merciful not meek, compassionate but never yielding, and always emotionally present for themselves and for one another.
We are civilians, true, but we are soldiers of a slightly more refined sort. And we are fighting battles on fields right here at home. The requirements are not all that different. We need to be alert, to think clearly, to see threats where threats exist and respond appropriately (which does not always mean being “nice”) rather than imagining threats that don’t exist or seeing even the mundane and neutral as dangerous. We cannot do this if we are fed a daily diet of consumer-driven viral fear by the media.
People who are afraid tend to go blank. We all know this to be true. We have either experienced it or seen it in the footage of 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing in which people walked around blank-faced, shocked, not knowing what to do with their bodies or their minds until the hand of a medic or rescue worker reached around theirs and pulled them to safety, until they heard the words “follow me” spoken by someone they could trust.
The irony in this culture of idol-smashers and rebels is that what is most necessary in crisis is for us to have an authority to follow, to have bonafide leadership, people whom we can count on to say what is TRUE, not confuse us with politically advantageous spin. Part of that authority now is the media. We don’t meet the commanders and, in fact, we rarely hear from them except in orchestrated press conferences. There are no more midnight criers, their capes flapping in the icy wind as they ride through town. Whether it’s tragic or comic, our new leaders, our new midnight criers are our newscasters.
You Are Only As Free As You Are Allowed To Believe In The USA
It’s perfectly acceptable for agents of the federal government to sneak onto your property at night, attach a GPS tracking device to your car, and then proceed to track your every move—all without a warrant.
A federal court ruled that federal agents who did just this to an Oregon man in 2007 didn’t violate his rights, because he has:
- no expectation of privacy in his driveway and…
- no expectation that the government won’t track his movements.
Privacy advocates are apoplectic.
A Federal Appeals Court imposed a bizarre — and scary — rule that now says the government can monitor you with new technologies virtually anytime it wants — with no need for a search warrant.
Government agents may trespass onto your property, attach a GPS device to your car and track everywhere you go. This doesn’t violate your Fourth Amendment rights, because you do not have any reasonable expectation of privacy in your own driveway — and no reasonable expectation that the government isn’t tracking your movements.
It is a dangerous decision — one that, as the dissenting judges warned, could turn America into the sort of totalitarian state imagined by George Orwell.
The decision is particularly offensive because the judges added insult to injury with some shocking class bias: the little personal privacy that still exists, the court suggested, should belong mainly to the rich.
The judges veered into offensiveness when they explained why the defendant’s driveway was not private. It was open to strangers, they said, such as delivery people and neighborhood children, who could wander across it uninvited.
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, dissenting from the decision, pointed out whose homes are not open to strangers: rich people’s. The court’s ruling, he said, means that:
- People who protect their homes with electric gates, fences and security booths have a large protected zone of privacy around their homes, and…
- People who cannot afford such barriers have to put up with the government sneaking around at night.
In fact, the judge’s dissent continued, the government violated the defendant’s privacy rights in two different ways:
- First, the invasion of his driveway was wrong. The courts have long held that people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their homes and in the “curtilage,” a legal term for the area around one’s home.
- Second is the terrible decision about privacy: that once a GPS device has been planted, the government is free to use it to track people without getting a warrant. A major battle rages in the federal and state courts over this issue, and the stakes are high. After all, if government agents can track people with secretly planted GPS devices virtually anytime they want, without having to go to a court for a warrant, we are one step closer to a classic police state — with technology taking on the role of the KGB or the East German Stasi.
Judge Kozinski is a leading conservative, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, but in his dissent he came across as a raging Liberal.
“There’s been much talk about diversity on the bench, but there’s one kind of diversity that doesn’t exist,” he wrote. “No truly poor people are appointed as federal judges, or as state judges for that matter.” The judges in the majority, he charged, were guilty of “cultural elitism.”
“1984 may have come a bit later than predicted, but it’s here at last,” Chief Judge Kozinski passionately lamented in his dissent.
And invoking Orwell’s totalitarian dystopia where privacy is essentially nonexistent, he warned: “Some day, soon, we may wake up and find we’re living in Oceania.”
Some combination of GPS-related privacy cases will probably be heard by the Supreme Court in the next year.
For those who don’t want to wait around for the Supreme Court to decide, Gizmodo.com offers a list of the best GPS jammers for your money.