Monday, June 10, 2013

The Surveillance Society

In yesterday's New York Times, Ross Douthat ("Your Smartphone Is Watching You") argued that  Americans "understand the essential nature of life on the Internet pretty well. The motto 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' — or, alternatively, 'abandon all privacy, ye who enter here' — might as well be stamped on every smartphone and emblazoned on every social media log-in page. As the security expert Bruce Schneier wrote recently, it isn’t that the Internet has been penetrated by the surveillance state; it’s that the Internet, in effect, is a surveillance state." 
Douthat is legitimately concerned about the effects of this - an atmosphere in which. "radicalism and protest will seem riskier, paranoia will be more reasonable, and conspiracy theories will proliferate." But he also recognizes that "genuinely dangerous people will often be pre-empted or more swiftly caught," and he accordingly concludes that many will find this "privacy-for-security swap" to be reasonable, "especially when there is no obvious alternative short of disconnecting from the Internet entirely" (certainly something most of us are obviously ill-disposed to do).
For all the noise about infringements to our "privacy," the fact is that my phone records are not my private records but the business records of a commercial entity. My credit card companies keep track of my purchases. So does Amazon and any other company that has my credit card number on file. When we debate (as we rightly ought to) the implications of the growing surveillance state, we have to start with the realistic recognition that ours is already a surveillance society - something which is an inevitable by-product of the technologies our society has created and most of us have largely embraced. 
Of course, the State has police power. So allowing the State access to all sorts of "private" information is not exactly the same as banks and other commercial entities having such access. Still, it is this surveillance society that makes the surveillance state possible - and much more acceptable to people.
Add to that the concern - both legitimate and exaggerated - for personal and national security. It's probably true that we crave more security from life's misfortunes than we can realistically attain. An ongoing New York Times discussion "Risk and Legal Fear in Schools" addresses the increasing contemporary obsession with creating a perfectly secure environment, something which is probably impossible and probably would be somewhat unhealthy were it actually achievable. The fact is that life is risky, and no matter how hard we try to be totally safe bad things do sometimes happen. The absurd effort to hype last September's tragedy in Benghazi into some sort of scandal presumes a context that suggests that somehow governments can be expected to guarantee total security from any bad things happening anywhere anytime. 
On the other hand, government's principal responsibility is national defense and security. Striking the balance between a robust pursuit of our national defense and domestic security in this time of terrorism and unrealistic expectations of total safety is a preeminently political discernment (an adult activity our current political culture is ill equipped to undertake, but which must be faced).
I don't know the answers to  all these questions. If ever deliberation and debate were called for, this would be an instance. It doesn't help, however, when, on the one hand, every example of something bad happening is treated as a failure to be corrected by increased limits on liberty, or, on the other hand, our constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties are automatically invoked in ways which do not respect citizens' legitimate fears and legitimate desire for some reasonable level of security.

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