Why you should care about government surveillance
“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin
For the same reason you buy home insurance, you should stand against government surveillance. The recent revelations of the National Security Agency (NSA) PRISM project that collects electronic communications are shocking – though not surprising. Under this program and others, the US Government actively monitors electronic communication of most Americans and most Canadians speaking with Americans. The NSA watches us in the name of security. They claim the collected information helps prevent catastrophic terrorist attacks, a sort of Minority Report that predicts crimes before they happen. We consent to this in the name of security. Is the exchange of freedom for temporary peace worth the cost?
If we define freedom as the freedom from oppression and the freedom to act as we desire, within the constraints of democratically enacted law, then it follows that we are no longer free. These surveillance programs remove your most basic freedom – whether you realize it or not. You cannot act freely if your thoughts, relationships, and speech are constantly monitored and analyzed; you end up in constant fear of oppression by the state. Did you know Ernest Hemingway committed suicide due to depression, compounded by constant surveillance by the FBI because of socialist sympathies?
The threat of force is usually enough to exert power. With your phone records, emails, Facebook messages and GPS locations; one day, when convenient, the people who have this information can ruin your life. Since the average citizen breaks three laws a day by speeding, paying cash, or fishing out of season – you are already guilty of something and the prosecutors already have all the evidence they need. No matter how hard you try or how good you think you are, you will break the law, some law, and the record is stored in a server farm, not so far away. Of course you will likely never be prosecuted, but one day that can all change.
Most of us buy home insurance to protect against catastrophic events – fire, flood, or tornadoes. We fear losing something precious and expensive, so we pay a fee just in case. Since you could opt for a vacation instead of insurance premiums, you are sacrificing current pleasure for peace of mind. With massive government surveillance programs, nothing stands between a zealous prosecutor (read: flood) and a destroyed life. A principal lever to restrict power is to restrict information. The creation of barriers between government and citizens might cost security today, but they offer freedom tomorrow. The power of government is well demonstrated by the prosecution of activists. This year, when faced with 25 years behind jail and mountains of legal bills for trying to help free publicly funded information, Aaron Schwartz killed himself – like Hemingway. Bradly Manning, the person behind Cablegate, is in jail indefinitely. Mandela spent 25 years in jail. The list is long.
It is not just activists who need fear the hammer of the judge. The well intentioned citizen who may have toked up in college, drank one too many beers, driven a little too fast or forgot to declare a little income has just as much to fear when those above him know every detail of every mistake he ever made. Want to run for mayor or take down a crooked politician? Forget it. Your competitors have all the details on your mistress, your drinking habits, and they can bring out that email you sent to your ex-girlfriend after a few too many drinks. The threat to harm is as powerful as the actual blow.
Freedom costs something. If we want a free society, we must give up certain short term comforts. We decided that our justice system should let some guilty criminals go free to ensure fewer innocent citizens are jailed. Today, we presume innocence and the government must prove you are guilty without a reasonable doubt. Mass surveillance removes the barriers between the citizen and the government, the consequences are a shackled society where we all live in fear and our actions are restricted. Freedom requires walls between centres of power, it requires limiting what government, companies and each of us know about each other. To know everything about everyone is to be all powerful. A surveillance state is the closest thing we have to an all-knowing, all powerful, judgmental Catholic God who sends us to hell for our inevitable sinful thoughts.
Democracy was conceived to remove absolute monarchs and distribute power amongst the people. Lincoln’s democracy, based on a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” will perish from this earth if it possesses a window into our minds. If you voluntarily give your hard earned liberties to secret government courts, private interests and power hungry institutions, do not expect them back anytime soon. If and when they decide to come for you, it will be at their convenience. The bag-men don’t come when the sun shines and the world watches, they come at night.
The well known poem by pastor Martin Niemöller rings very true.
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
Links of interest
- Hemingway committed suicide because of surveillance
- Memories of Stasi
- Rundown of PRISM scandal
- Q&A with Snowden
- Great video interview with Snowden
- No Freedom without Free Software
- Privacy and the threat to self by Flynch
- The Irrationality of giving up this much liberty to fight terror
- Rex Murphy’s idiotic criticism of transparency
- Lincoln’s surveillance state