Hello and Musings on Rhetoric and Labeling in the Post-Snowden Era (Part 1)

Thank you to Frank and the rest of the crew for having me this month! I look forward to using this space to share some of my recent scholarship with you as well as my thoughts on other topics that have been on my mind.

In the latter category is a series of discussions I have observed lately on the topic of political rhetoric on civil liberties. In the months following the incidents culminating in the revelations of Edward Snowden about the level and methods of NSA surveillance, two camps have notably emerged. The first warns that even those who oppose the NSA’s activities should avoid using overly strong language to condemn the actions of the United States. For instance, some commentators deride the application of the “Orwellian” label to America today, which follows in the footsteps of a long-standing tradition of debate about the term. Along those lines, others have warned against designating the United States as a “police state” because this implies moral equivalence to countries like North Korea or Cuba. Meanwhile, the second camp in the conversation blasts “privacy moderates” who refuse to embrace strong rhetoric and “contrive frames that enable them to criticize both the surveillance state and its antagonists”.

To some extent, rhetoric and substance become difficult to disaggregate on this topic as on many others. The binary nature of labels like “police state” or “surveillance state” is, unsurprisingly, fairly illusory in that the extent of government actions that give rise to these labels lie on a spectrum. Two of the questions that strike me as relevant and interesting in examining the application of these terms to America today is 1) whether they are true and 2) whether they useful.

On the first point, and focusing on the “surveillance state” aspect rather than other attributes that may or may not justify the label of “police state”, I offer here some assorted thoughts:

–          The overall level and scale of surveillance today is unprecedented in U.S. history.

–          Many activities that took place in countries that we typically consider the quintessential surveillance states (for instance, the former Soviet Bloc) do not occur in the U.S. today. This includes the large-scale use of individual informants charged with spying on their friends and neighbors, the routine personal trailing of everyday citizens, the normalized bugging of both public locations and private abodes, and the resulting volumes of individually transcribed documentation of the lives of a significant percentage of the population.

–          Many activities that take place in America today did not occur in those same countries. This was solely due to a difference in technological development at the time as there were no emails on which to spy or browsing history to peruse. If those countries could have used better electronic means of surveillance, they would have.

–           We have no way of knowing what type and level of surveillance the American government would employ today, after 9/11, if it did not have access to electronic data. Hence, the problem with saying that America is not as individually intrusive in its measures as some other countries have been historically runs into the objection that America simply does not need to be given today’s technology, which does not help America’s moral claims. This is definitely not to say that America and those countries are morally equivalent per se. They are not, in part because America allows for a lot of criticism of its practices (major caveat: if you can detect them!), criminalizes a lot fewer activities than those countries did/do, and does not send people to Gulag camps even when it does punish them. At the same time, similarly to how someone does not cease to be a “jerk” just because there are worse jerks out there, this does not give America a free pass on these matters.

–          The distinctions between electronic and personal spying form a double-edged sword. Being subject to electronic surveillance is less obvious in its intrusiveness and less directly frightening than having a person follow you. It is also, however, potentially more difficult to detect and thus to resist.

–          America uses internal minimization procedures that limit when it can actually look at the content of data, and the FISA Court provides review as well. Of course, because of the secrecy surrounding all of these forms of procedures, we cannot rest assured of their effectiveness, but this is a clear difference between the U.S. and the traditional surveillance states. Some lawmakers are now pushing for reforms to some of these processes, which only became possible after Snowden’s revelations.

–          For the first time since Pew asked the question in 2004, more Americans are worried about privacy than about insufficient protection against terrorism. It is difficult to believe that this fact, based on Snowden’s and other recent revelations, has failed to have an impact on the behavior of regular law-abiding citizens in the way that they conduct their online and phone activities. Parallels between such changes in behavior in the U.S. and those in worse countries are disconcerting.

While I respect the worry about equating the United States with much worse countries, I do not believe that the accusation that we have become or at least are turning into a “surveillance state” can be dismissed out of hand on the truth axis. The average American probably spends dozens of hours a week on a combination of activities that are potentially or actually subject to large-scale government surveillance (meaning time spent on the Internet, on the phone, in the presence of surveillance cameras, in TSA scanners, etc.). As a result, if Snowden’s allegations are correct, odds are that a significant percentage of law-abiding Americans’ lives are on file with the government and often easily searchable, including as laws and morals change and the government considers different activities of interest than it perhaps used to. This should give us pause.

I will discuss the usefulness of the labels and my overall conclusions in Part 2 of this post.

You may also like...

1 Response

  1. Jamie says:

    If the Stasi had had a populace of smart phone users, they would not have had to recruit so heavily. (It is true that recruiting had orthogonal aims as well; for the discussion at hand, I elide those.)

    If the Land of the Free had asked every middle class person to carry a couple of cameras, an audio bug, and a geolocation beacon at all times, they would freak out. Make them pay for it and throw in cat videos, and they map their social relations as a kicker.