How Edward Snowden demonstrated we all have something to hide
Depending on whom you believe, public sentiment through the five weeks of the Edward Snowden saga has either shifted wildly or remained static. Quinnipac University found last week that 45% of U.S. voters think government anti-terrorism efforts excessively constrain civil liberties. Forty percent, meanwhile, think that anti-terrorism programs have not gone far enough in protecting citizens, implying that these respondents would happily sacrifice greater degrees of liberty in exchange for supposed security gains. This represents a massive shift from January 2010—when asked the same question, only 25% felt that citizen rights were unduly hampered, while 63% thought the government’s anti-terrorism response was too weak.
Conversely, a Pew poll conducted from June 6-9, just as Snowden’s revelations regarding PRISM began, found 56% of Americans thought the NSA tracking phone records of millions of Americans was acceptable. When asked if the government should be able to monitor everyone’s e-mail to prevent possible terrorism, 45% answered in the affirmative, while 62% thought investigating terrorist threats was more important than protecting privacy. These numbers have remained almost constant over the past decade, with the same 45% consenting to universal government surveillance of e-mail in July 2002, and 65% prioritizing anti-terrorism over privacy in January 2006. Meanwhile, Canadians’ stance mirrors that of our U.S. counterparts, with 62% of those following the story to some extent agreeing that investigations into possible threats should take precedence over privacy protections.
No matter what poll one draws upon, it is clear that at least four-tenths of respondents will sacrifice privacy for an improved sense of security. Moreover, some sixty percent place greater value on government investigation of terrorist threats than maintaining privacy, suggesting that, if officials carefully frame their surveillance efforts, a majority of citizens will consent to them. My personal experience has been consistent with this mindset, for in conversing with friends and acquaintances, few have shown any great indignation regarding Snowden’s revelations. While I can hardly fault my friends for this—each of us has a regrettably limited amount of outrage, which we can afford to allot to only the causes nearest to our hearts—it is nonetheless disheartening to hear those around me dismiss this issue out of hand. Such discussions have forced me to reflect: Why do I stringently object to government surveillance, while my peers accept it as a matter of course?
The most common justification of acquiescence when faced with government surveillance is the supposition that if one has nothing to hide, he has nothing to fear. This opinion is held not only by us, the unwashed masses, but also figures in power. Eric Schmidt stated during his time as Google CEO in an interview for a CNBC documentary, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Similarly, in commenting on the divulgement that the NSA had been tracking hundreds of billions of phone calls made by Americans, former U.S. Senate majority leader Trent Lott said, “What are people worried about? What is the problem? Are you doing something you’re not supposed to?” My immediate visceral reaction to the nothing-to-hide argument is one of revulsion—granting authorities permission to peek into the most intimate corners of my life feels wrong. Nevertheless, the argument troubles me because I struggle to produce a more reasoned rebuttal. I harbor no great secrets that would bring harm to me if the government were to learn them, and thus I seem to sacrifice little by granting the government access to my affairs. If the same access were gained to the inner lives of those who wish us harm, surely the government would find something that would stymie the malcontents’ efforts, improving security for us all. Rejecting this argument requires considerable effort.
The naïve response to the nothing-to-hide argument is a direct refutation: of course you have something to hide! Even the staunchest surveillance advocate is forced to admit he would object to the government installing a camera in his bedroom so that intelligence agents could watch him undress. But upon further inspection, this rejoinder falters. While everyone has something to hide in the strictest sense, this notion does not apply to government surveillance, for we are not debating 1984-esque oversight demanding the installation of cameras in every home. Instead, the government only wants to monitor our phone calls, e-mails, and other communications. Even with such limitations in place, the surveillance opponent can still imagine discommodious details emerging. When the Venezuelan government will record dissidents’ phone calls, then have media mouthpieces read them on state television while mocking the recordees’ use of language, it is hardly a great stretch to envision the government learning that I’m carrying on an affair by intercepting an e-mail I sent to my mistress, then blackmailing me with this knowledge. Still, surveillance proponents are surely upstanding citizens who would never enter such morally compromising situations, and so we must seek a superior confutation.
A better response to the nothing-to-hide argument comes from Daniel J. Solove, a law professor at George Washington University. He agitates that, in understanding how surveillance’s intrusions into our private lives imperils our liberty, we must pursue a broader definition of privacy, beyond the simple notion of concealing that which might embarrass us. Government surveillance endangers us not because it may reveal that which we would rather keep private, but because it fundamentally changes our relation to the state. Government is the single largest organization operating in any society, and it alone reserves the right to deprive me of my freedom. Such power, then, must be balanced by transparency— when the government decides why I should not be allowed to fly on an airline, why I should be barred from re-entering the country, or why I should be jailed, I must understand why it has come to this decision, so that I can counter any mistakes it has made. Pervasive surveillance of citizenry is antithetical to transparency. Communications monitoring such as that performed by the NSA produces an electronic dossier for each citizen, cobbled together from e-mails, phone calls, and Facebook postings, that may inform every decision the government makes regarding that person. With no ability to view information collected about us, let alone correct any errors within it, we become increasingly powerless to control our interactions with the state.
While such language pushes my argument perilously close to elements of the libertarian camp with unusually shiny aluminum hats, the threat is hardly an abstract one. The No-Fly List serves as a sterling example of how an opaque government decision-making process can negatively impact normal citizens. Your presence on such a list is rarely revealed directly—instead, you come to suspect it only after being singled out for identity verification each time you fly. Though most passengers cannot imagine why they were placed on the list, some may guess why they were added. Walter F. Murphy, a constitutional scholar who served as the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton before his death in 2010, believed he was placed on the No-Fly list because he gave a lecture highly critical of President Bush. In another instance, the Maryland State Police classified 53 nonviolent activists as terrorists due to their involvement in groups opposing the death penalty and Iraq war, resulting in their inability to fly. Most glaring is the case of Abe Mashal, who was placed on a No-Fly List after e-mailing an under-surveillance Muslim cleric for advice on raising a child in a mixed-faith home. FBI agents later revealed to Mashal that he was on the list, offering to remove him if he served as an undercover informant at local Chicago mosques.
We need not rely on government to face the specter of the individual rendered increasingly impotent in the face of decisions made by a large organization based on an opaque profile constructed through data collection. Today, private organizations pose the same threat, as the exemplars of the Internet age compile ever-growing databases about their customers. Like the NSA, Google and Facebook use automated means of monitoring my private communications to build a detailed profile about me. These efforts differ from the NSA’s in that I granted my implicit permission for their conduct by using these services, and in the end goal being not halting terrorism, but serving advertisements to which I am more likely to respond. Nevertheless, the same problem results: these organizations use their knowledge of me gleaned from private communications to make decisions about me, while it is impossible for me to view or modify this compiled information, thereby rendering their decision-making process entirely opaque. Thankfully, these companies do not wield nearly as much power over me as does the government, thus limiting the impact of their decisions—I may be banned from Facebook after being flagged by an algorithm when I make controversial comments, or lose access to my Google account and all associated data after their system mistakenly determines I’m under the required age when I sign up for a new service. In more extreme cases, I may even have sensitive information revealed to an abusive ex-spouse when Google erroneously elects to broadcast my private data. Though such incidents pale next to the ability government has to harm us, they will grow more dire as we cede increasing control over our lives to such companies.
In recognizing the threat surveillance by the NSA and private companies poses to us, it is tempting to vilify the entities responsible. When we recognize that their efforts may cause us harm, so too must they see this potential, meaning that their continuous attempts to compile more knowledge about us is an implicit admission of malicious intent. Yet to cast these institutions as evil is to immediately surrender any hope of understanding their motivations. People employed by these organizations believe in their missions—those working for the NSA believe they are collecting my information to make Americans safer; those working for Facebook believe they are collecting my information to better connect me to my friends; those working for Google believe they are collecting my information so they can organize the world’s knowledge. The organization is, alas, a peculiar and dehumanizing being. Though no one individual in the employ of these entities bears us ill will, the manner in which an employee at any level of command, even the very top, is insulated from people at other levels means that the organization as a whole can cause great harm. This makes the threat of pervasive surveillance all the more abstruse—we cannot frame individuals underlying it as evil, for they do not understand the hazard their efforts impose.
The menace posed by routine surveillance will only increase through the coming decades. Technology’s never-ending march ensures the cost of monitoring and storing communications will continue its precipitous decline, while people will continue to embrace communications platforms that permit them to better connect to others. Inevitably, we will reveal ever-more about ourselves, while the cost of monitoring communications becomes ever-less. Even in the dead-tree age of the Cold War, the Stasi in East Germany managed to generate paper records regarding their citizens’ private activities that would have filled 100 miles of shelves. Today, the ease of surveillance means a government can glean far more information in a much less intrusive manner; the threat presented by private companies’ knowledge of us, meanwhile, is entirely novel.
The 2006 revelation of room 641A in a San Francisco telecommunications tower operated by AT&T suggested that the NSA is intercepting the vast majority of traffic that passes through telecommunications hubs. Whatever gaps remain in this information can be filled in by programs such as PRISM, in which the government coerces major communications companies to hand over private data belonging to individuals of interest. Given that such thorough intrusions already exist, we can expect violations all the more flagrant in the coming years. As Derek Khanna wrote in The Atlantic, the NSA’s raison d’être is to gather information by spying, and so given the directive to improve security, it will naturally—and can only—increase surveillance.
Knowing that surveillance will only increase, how do we proceed? Contrary to the breathless advice issued by many privacy advocates, I will not use Tor for routine browsing. Using Tor without understanding its consequences is injurious, as various government embassies learned in 2007 when they revealed e-mail passwords to attackers through indiscriminate Tor use. At best, Tor increases anonymity by sacrificing privacy, for it reveals your traffic to whatever exit node it selects. Tor may even compromise your anonymity, for a large attacker controlling multiple Tor nodes may be able to trace traffic to its origin based on characteristics such as packet length. In any event, given the sensitive nature of information passing through Tor, it is foolhardy to not expect malicious parties, including governments, to at least be maintaining exit nodes so they can monitor traffic.
With supposed simple solutions such as universally using Tor unworkable, how can we thwart government spying? Firstly, we can take advantage of every moment Snowden’s story remains amongst the headlines to spur discussions regarding privacy. Most media coverage has focused on Snowden’s search for asylum, which I suspect he anticipated—he knew the dramatic aspects of his personal story would appeal to media, permitting discussions regarding privacy and surveillance to occur in the background for as long as he remained a news item. Secondly, we can vote for electoral candidates who advocate limiting the state’s surveillance powers, and we can support individuals who, like Snowden, speak out against the system at great personal cost. Abatement of the NSA’s surveillance program is unlikely to come soon, given that the agency is, by its nature, insulated from public opinion. Still, expressing our will through the electoral process is possible, if painfully slow. Finally, we can modify our activities online to account for pervasive monitoring, both by government and private companies. Expecting the multitudes to stop using Google, Facebook, and similar services is not realistic; indeed, though I feel passionately about these issues, I shall not cease my use of such services, for I simply find them too convenient. What we can do, however, is modify our use based on the understanding that nothing we say using these services is properly private. Even our most trivial utterances may be dredged up in the future by parties who should by rights have no access to them, and so we must modify our conduct to reveal nothing that might give others power over us.
Despite all this doom-and-gloom, pervasive surveillance is not without its upsides. I eagerly anticipate U.S. presidential races in three decades’ time, when every candidate will have her most mortifying Facebook posts from college broadcast for all the electorate to enjoy. My posting history, alas, already ensures I won’t be running for office.