You may think you’re just an average, law abiding citizen, minding your own business and going about your life, but you may already be a target of a government investigation or named on a watch list of potential terrorists.
When whistleblower Edward Snowden came forward last week with revelations that the NSA has been secretly recording the phone conversations and digital communications of everyone in America, a media frenzy immediately erupted. Thousands were outraged at the news that every move they make is captured by government spying programs called PRISM and Boundless Informant, which capture and store private data in the name of fighting terrorism. As petitions sprang up online to pardon Snowden, a debate began slowly smoldering on social media, with some people doing a virtual shoulder shrug and wondering why everyone was making such a fuss. “What difference does it make to me?” they asked, citing the fact that we’ve been under surveillance for years. “Does it even affect my life?” inquired others. Yes, the NSA scandal does affect you personally, and here’s why.
Daniel Solove, a law professor at George Washington University Law School, wrote an excellent essay in 2011 entitled “Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have Nothing to Hide.” At the time he penned this brilliant tome, the NSA scandal was still two years away. He couldn’t have known how important his paper would become, or the impact it would have in the future, but it perfectly illustrates why everyone should care- and care a lot, about the NSA spy programs. In his piece, he points out that people often use the phrase “I have nothing to hide” when they brush off criticism of government surveillance. However, there are several crucial ways in which being under surveillance affects each of us, even if we have nothing to hide. First, and perhaps most importantly, surveillance tips the balance of power between citizens and government in a dangerous way and creates numerous serious problems. Says Solove:
The problems… not only frustrate the individual by creating a sense of helplessness and powerlessness, but also affect social structure by altering the kind of relationships people have with the institutions that make important decisions about their lives…Surveillance…can inhibit such lawful activities as free speech, free association, and other First Amendment rights essential for democracy.
What Solove is pointing out in the quote above is also what’s known as “the chilling effect.” This is a legal term, and one with which many folks are not familiar. In this case, it means that when the balance of power between people and government is shifted from one of freedom to one of intimidation and fear, the citizens may become stymied in their ability to speak freely because of their anxiety over being watched. So, it’s not that they have “something to hide,” it’s that they morph into different people than they once were, and that is not democracy.
Dave Maas, spokesman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group that has been fighting in the courts for years over this issue, says that most of us “don’t want to live in a country where a government gives itself incredibly invasive powers, where everything is secret, where the oversight is secret, and even the records are secret.” We don’t know how the information can be used against us, he says, and that creates a profound chilling effect. The more information someone has about you, the more power they wield over your life, and suddenly, the United States may begin to move away from being a government “of the people” to a government that models itself on tyranny.
Another problem that Solove points out is called “secondary use” of your information. What if, for example, you’re a middle class person, and you make a purchase of some vintage clothing at a thrift store with your credit card, and then go to a discount grocery store to pick up some bread and milk just because it’s right next door to where you happen to be? How would you like it if the government then makes decisions about you based on the location of those purchases? What if they decide you would probably default on a student loan? Suddenly, you may find your dreams for the future dashed to pieces.
Or what if you make a joke on social media, something you intend to be completely humorous, and it gets picked up and filtered by their systems, then grossly misconstrued? If that happens, you could show up at the airport and find out you’re on a no-fly list, or worse. What if you are ever falsely accused of something, and that joke you made on the telephone five years ago gets entered into evidence against you? What seemed like a hilarious jab at your annoying neighbor may now be grounds to consider you a criminal. These are just a few examples of some of the consequences we could face. While we don’t yet know the full ramifications of these kinds of secondary usages, we do know that there are already people who have landed on no-fly lists even though they are completely innocent.
A third issue, and one that has happened quite a bit, is abuse. Having such widespread information opens up the door for a tremendous amount of misuse of that data. Many people have already been the victims of blackmail due to unscrupulous use of their private details, and most advocacy groups fear that incidences of blackmail will continue to proliferate at an alarming speed.
Since the type of data being collected exists in a vacuum-that is, it is disembodied from the complete person, it is easy for the information to paint a distorted picture of the creator of that information. For example, say you’ve gone to Amazon and purchased 5 books on Al Qaeda. Now, in the government’s eyes, you may be a suspected terrorist, even if you were buying the books to begin research on an upcoming documentary you’re planning to make about radical groups. You’re perfectly innocent, but the government doesn’t think so. You may soon find yourself being followed by an unmarked car with dark windows. Before you laugh, think again. It has happened to many people already. Now that you’re under suspicion, what will transpire when you go to apply for a mortgage, get a high level job or even apply for government funding for that documentary you thought you were going to make?
Say you get a little worried that you may be on a watch list; after all, you want to move freely within and even out of the country. Maybe you plan to take a vacation in Paris and you don’t want to end up being detained at the airport. Suddenly, you decide to forget all about that documentary and just focus on your middle management job instead. You forfeit your dreams, and the rest of society is deprived of your documentary.
But what if it’s even more insidious than that? What if you don’t even realize how much the news of NSA surveillance has affected you? What if it’s gotten into your subconscious and you drop the documentary without attributing it to your reaction to the spy program, but rather, you simply “forget” about making the film? That, too, is the chilling effect, and that is not democracy.
Democracy depends on a free society, one in which citizens are invited to debate, dissent, discuss ideas, read books and generally live their lives without their every move being scrutinized by the government. The fourth amendment to the Constitution promises us:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Living under a government that has so little respect for the constitution can create an environment of fear for much of the population. Even if you feel you are immune to any effect the NSA programs can cause, think of the possible outcomes shaped by the reactions of those around you. Creativity could die. Art could be censored by the very people who should be sharing their talents with the world. Maybe some books wouldn’t get written, and then ideas would start to atrophy. It’s almost beyond Orwellian.
Maass, the EFF spokesman, sums it up best when speaking about those who think the NSA surveillance programs don’t affect them: “People say they are not surprised… if you hear about a drunk driving accident down the street, you may not be shocked, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be angry about it, and it doesn’t mean you won’t be involved in the next one…By the time they find out this is real, it will be too late.”
You may have nothing to hide, and neither may your neighbor, but you don’t need to have anything to hide to be affected by the NSA scandal. The United States would never have been founded if it weren’t for free speech, debate, dissent and the unfettered flow of ideas. The exact instant that thoughts are restrained through the chilling effect of surveillance, democracy ends.
Edward Snowden leaves us this ominous warning:
You don’t have to have done anything wrong, you simply have to fall under suspicion from anybody, even by a wrong call, and they can use the system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with and attack you on that basis to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.
An innocent life suddenly perceived as criminal is not what our forefathers intended for America. They may have gotten fired up and even angry when they were forming this nation, but nothing would have invoked their ire more than the thought that the United States would turn from a free country into a government of oppression.
By: Rebecca Savastio
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education
Source: The Constitution of the United States of America, Bill of Rights, Fourth Amendment
Source: Interview with Edward Snowden