I can hardly say that I am shocked or surprised by the recent leaks on the extent of US data collection and surveillance efforts. The news and public reaction to it has led me on 3 different and somewhat conflicting trajectories of thought:
- Why are people so shocked and outraged by the extent to which the NSA can and has accessed information about all Americans? We had all manner of ways to respond to the 9/11 attacks and we chose wrongly. In general, the US response to 9/11 was just what Bin Laden is reported to have been hoping for – a xenophobic, Zionistic, militaristic, anti-democratic and economically exploitative lashing out that Bin Laden claimed revealed our true nature. As one example of this, the USA Patriot Act provided the power of data access that is being used here. The rationale behind the act was that it would only be used to keep us safe from bad guys. Are we really so naïve as to assume that innocent good guys can avoid being collateral damage in war focused on pre-emptive strike? That would be like assuming that you could put guns in the hands of self-deputized defenders of freedom against aggressors and other bad-guy types and only (or even mostly) bad guys would end up getting shot. Oh, wait a minute….
- It seems that the public ire points to a warped conception of what privacy is and a little too much reverence for it as well. Privacy is not an individual quality, fact, or right in the absolute sense. It is and has always been a social compact (that can be codified in law) entailing both the act of non-disclosure and the act of discretion on the part of the subject and the people and institutions they encounter. Sociologist Erving Goffman observes the way privacy is constructed among villagers on the Shetland Islands. There are no looks on the doors and people just walk into one another’s houses. So, as a courtesy, while one is approaching the house they make a bit of noise so people know they are coming and prepare for their arrival. Should they walk into a “private” scene, the incident is usually quickly repaired and “forgotten” – not necessarily in the sense that people actually forget, but in the sense that people do not speak of it again and either make it or act as if it is irrelevant to ongoing social relations. In other words, my privacy at home depends as much upon neighbors never letting on that they may have overheard me arguing with my spouse or once through the window caught a glimpse of me streaking from the shower to my clothes closet. Although I think the US is creating more enemies than it is disabling with this surveillance and other aspects of its approach to security and global affairs, I remain fairly unconcerned with the NSA’s access to my “private information” because, at this point and only tentatively as in all social relations, I trust (and more than I trust your average, unregulated conceal and carry type) that they will be appropriately discrete.
- What is the relationship between the American people and the State? We like to throw around “of the people, for the people, by the people” but our relationship with our governing institutions seems to consist of a fundamental mistrust, the presumption of ill will or indifference, the belief that the government does not in fact represent or work on behalf of the constituents. I suspect that our system is fundamentally flawed and we cannot pretend that we don’t have a hand in it. We throw out our incumbents but our new representatives are no better because, not believing a word they say and/or allowing ourselves to be wooed by their well-researched appeals to our emotions we vote, not in the public interest but in terms of our self interest or on the basis of our self-identities and personal affiliations. We turn a blind eye to the way it is all crumbling around our ears – our roads and bridges, our schools, our environment, our ability to be free from the fear of hunger, illness and violence. What is the hope for a nation that seeks to destroy itself?