The controversy surrounding the National Security Agency's mass surveillance program feels like the well-worn plot of a classic movie. Remember the government's admission a few years back that Iraq did not, after all, have weapons of mass destruction? By the time it was admitted, everyone already had figured out the emperor was naked. Yet something about that formal acknowledgement gave us permission to openly discuss what we already suspected.
Time and again, we Americans demonstrate we don't fully trust ourselves, that we cannot understand government actions without guiding narratives in place. It seems that the complex of media, government, academia and business doesn't just rule us: It outright curates our reality.
So when the school assembly is over and the principal has made her announcements, thank God the pundits are there to round us up and lead us back to our homerooms, single file. Like children, we passively consume the pundits' reactions — as if the choice of which spin to accept is itself empowering. After all, we don't have time in our busy lives to mentally deal with this. Better to signal our relevance by choosing our coping mechanism from a buffet of cynicism, patriotic indignation, reformist compromise or hand-wringing resignation.
Among the many sterile choices available, the punditry offers these narratives:
1. Mass surveillance is an acceptable encroachment on our privacy.
2. Mass surveillance requires appropriate oversight or a national conversation to protect our privacy.
3. Mass surveillance is an unacceptable encroachment on our privacy.
We're encouraged to see this as a privacy issue: to turn inward and decide just how much of our lives can be offered up to the state. Large-scale, bureaucratic intrusion into our personal lives is a given, but we can fill out a customer response card if we have any comments about the degree of the intrusion. If this is about privacy, the onus is on us to define its limits, to guide our servant institutions to the right policies that will protect our newly cordoned-off personal space.
Pundits constantly lecture us on how our ubiquitous sharing through social media somehow justifies coordinated exploitation of our lives. Much like saying the rape victim's clothing at the time of her attack somehow indicates she was "asking for it," the punditry has deemed our online habits injudicious and therefore fair game. Rather than asking whether government mass surveillance is desirable, they spin it into a conversation about the limits of privacy. It's like fighting rape by starting a conversation about tasteful attire.
Privacy is an important issue, but it has little to do with government mass surveillance. This scandal is not about privacy, or whistle-blowing, or whether Edward Snowden was a bad neighbor, or whether he had enough education to work within the security agency, or whether the media should have published the story, or any of that. This is about state-sponsored spying, and that should be front and center in any discussion.
Because creating a dossier on every human being on the planet would be blatantly totalitarian, the government has built an alternative Orwellian infrastructure that empowers it to build that dossier at will. Officials claim that they're merely collecting anonymous metadata, but this spin avoids the point with expert precision.
Normally an investigation would begin with the gathering of evidence. The cost and effort to do so is an insufficient but important bureaucratic deterrent against arbitrary persecutions.
But with the NSA's operation in place, now an investigation begins by merely bothering to look at the evidence they've already gathered on you. Essentially, they started an investigation into you years ago, but it's proceeding on autopilot, waiting for a government agent to open the file.
Imagine the police searching and cataloging the contents of every home on the planet pre-emptively, claiming they'll never use that evidence unless you're accused of a crime. That means you're one criminal complaint, or one crooked cop, away from an intrusive profile of your every action, easily data mined for whatever purpose he sees fit. If someone in authority can create your dossier on a whim, that's functionally equivalent to keeping one on you right now.
The NSA and CIA aren't in law enforcement because their activities are extralegal, entirely outside the scope of rights or justice. They're supposed to be apprehending other spy agencies and governments, not you and me. Espionage is a game that civilians are supposed to be left out of entirely.
Yet the best response pundits can offer is a shallow debate about privacy. Cat pictures, silly memes, and what we had for lunch are the only information at stake. We must simply decide as a nation what kind of secret police would best allow us these trivial private lives of ours.
But the onus is not on us to define the boundaries of our private lives. The onus is on the authorities to explain the way their totalitarian institutions always spill out of their confines. S
Jeremy Weiland is a software developer, writer and activist in Richmond. Online at jeremyweiland.com.
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