The Surveillance State: A Discussion on Freedom and Privacy

by Nicolas Tourani

Staff Reporter

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The recent revelations brought to the world by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have shown the world the extent of the U.S. government’s domestic and worldwide surveillance efforts. As we see ourselves slipping further and further into a surveillance state, here are a number of important questions to ask.

Why do privacy rights matter to those not engaged in illegal activities?

The standard response by many sectors of American society to the Snowden revelations has developed into something along the lines of: ‘well I’m not a terrorist, so what does it matter if the government is looking through my emails?’ This response is not surprising given how recently the dominant yardstick of American-ness was the amount of American flags one owned multiplied by the amount of hours of Fox News watched. However, two reporters involved in stories exposing abuses of power by the U.S. Government, Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, have begun to counter this reaction with their own line of reasoning: If you’re not worried about the privacy of your internet communications, then give them [Scahill, Greenwald] the password to your email account. This statement is meant to convince citizens that they do in fact care about their own privacy rights, but that their true feelings have been manipulated by the last decade and a half of politics and war-making in this country. To those involved in anti-surveillance actions and protests, there can exist no freedom in this country without privacy.

So then, what are the potential dangers of a mass surveillance state?

In a September 2013 article for The Nation, author Jonathan Schell makes the argument that a number of the surveillance policies being implemented by the United States government are “setting up machinery that satisfies certain tendencies that are in the genetic code of totalitarianism.” The two main tendencies that Schell points to are the ambitions to invade personal privacy without oversight or the possibility of individual protection, and the ambition to control the entire globe. There is no doubt about his first claim, as the Snowden Revelations made it abundantly clear that surveillance agencies in the United States have made it their priority to trample individual rights in the name of increased security covering just about everyone. The second claim may seem a little more unbelievable at first. (World domination, really?) But, as Schell points out, the Snowden Revelations also showed the world that the United States was spying on citizens of countries all over the world, including our closest allies and their leaders. Throughout the Twentieth Century, a number of totalitarian governments have tried and failed to achieve world domination (think Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union for example). But today, in the more extensive arena of information sharing through technology, Schell argues “a sort of shadow or rudiment of [world domination] is near realization by the ‘sole superpower,’ the United States.” How can self-determination and sovereignty exist in a world where the sole superpower alone can see what communications are being shared by anyone around the world? This power has an extreme potential for abuse in U.S. attempts to influence or undermine the domestic actions of other countries’ governments. Which brings me to my next question.

Do we really trust those in charge of our government with this sort of power?

A 2010 Gallup poll asked Americans the question, “How much of the time do you think you can trust government in Washington to do what is right?” The percentage for ‘Just about always/Most of the time’ was 19%, while the percentage for ‘Only some of the time/Never’ was 81%. This indicates a clear mistrust in the actions of the U.S. government by its own people, so why the lack of populist reaction against the government since the revelations? One of the most plausible explanations could be the linking by the U.S. Government of Surveillance and Counter-terrorism in the narratives presented to the American people. What more people need to understand is that once these behemoth surveillance systems are put in place, their use does not remain confined to counter-terrorism. Any type of political, economic, or social movement that the U.S. government deems ‘against its interests’ can be monitored, and the intelligence gathered can be used to discredit the organization. The criminalization of whistleblowing in the cases of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and a number of other whistleblowers in the government and military reveal the tactics to discredit those who act against the interests of the government. In another glaring case, documents released by the FBI in 2012 showed that the FBI, in partnership with a number of financial institutions, launched a national clandestine investigation of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. This surveillance operation was justified by claiming the protests were a “criminal activity,” and that they posed a potential “domestic terrorism threat.” If this sort of power were to fall into the wrong hands, which history has proven can and will occur, the surveillance powers of the government will pose a major threat to any political and social movements aiming to stop the advance of totalitarianism. Many believe that the powers have already fallen into the wrong hands.

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