Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the NSA has been empowered to undertake a mass surveillance program whose ultimate aim is to thwart terrorist attacks of the kind that took place on Sept. 11. The precise nature of Snowden’s disclosures is complicated, and their legal and policy implications largely pertain to the United States, but the gist of the matter is that the NSA, with the often willing help of companies like IBM, Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook, has been scooping up data from phone and Internet communications of a broad swath of people in the United States and abroad in a way that is almost entirely indiscriminate. There is little doubt in my mind that emails I have sent and phone calls I have made to colleagues and friends are somewhere in the vortex of the NSA’s servers.
While the NSA has periodically violated U.S. law on such matters, so far as anyone knows it has not as of yet misused the information on innocent citizens of the United States or elsewhere in what can only be described as a mass and shameless invasion of privacy. The question at this point should be whether those whose lives are remote from terrorist activities should really care whether the government monitors our electronic communications, especially if such surveillance marginally increases our personal security.
Why should we care about whether our phone and online activities are private and protected from the eyes of the government, so long as compromising personal information is not released to the public? We already entrust the government with lots of personal information. Though I do not live an especially racy life, I would prefer that my emails and phone calls of the past 12 years not be public, but doing so would have at most a minor impact on my life and none on my personal freedom. Why should I care? What is at stake? And why did any of us think that our lives and mercurial obsessions could be played out on the Internet with impunity and in complete privacy? The Internet, after all, does not resemble a bedroom. Sending an email is more like shouting in a public square than like whispering in someone’s ear.
ShareImages of George Orwell’s Big Brother from his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, a not-so-subtle critique of totalitarianism, are often invoked in this context, yet totalitarian regimes typically come into existence through violence and not surveillance (surveillance comes later as a way of maintaining an illegitimate regime), and there is little reason to think that curtailing the activities of organizations like the NSA will prevent the emergence of totalitarian regimes in the future; the problems with our not-so-transparent democracies, governed as they are by money and influence and short-term interests, run far deeper. (Read more.)