This week, The Nation magazine published an interesting piece titled “Welcome to Post-Constitution America.” The piece addressed the Snowden and Manning cases in the context of arguing that America was gradually transforming into a police surveillance state (read it here). Here are some quotes:
“The FBI is also following NSA’s lead implanting spyware and other hacker software developed for our war zones secretly and remotely in American computers and cell phones. The Bureau can then remotely turn on phone and laptop microphones, even webcams, to monitor citizens, while files can be pulled from a computer or implanted onto a computer.”
On Manning’s trial, “During the months of the trial, the US military refused to release official transcripts of the proceedings. Even a private courtroom sketch artist was barred from the room. Independent journalist and activist Alexa O’Brien then took it upon herself to attend the trial daily, defy the Army and make an unofficial record of the proceedings by hand. Later in the trial, armed military police were stationed behind reporters listening to testimony … the feeling that Manning’s fate was predetermined could hardly be avoided.”
“Full-spectrum spying is not considered to violate the Fourth Amendment and does not even require probable cause. Low-level NSA analysts have desktop access to the private emails and phone calls of Americans. The Post Office photographs the envelopes of every one of the 160 billion pieces of mail it handles, collecting the metadata of “to:” and ‘from:’ addresses.”
Many of the news and opinion pieces I’ve read as of late refer to what’s called a “post-9/11 America.” In this post-9/11 America, many new laws have been passed in the name of national security. Some would argue that these laws allow the government to wrongfully spy on its citizens and violate their privacy. And others would argue that these laws are necessary to catch terrorists and protect our country. But regardless of personal opinions, every time a new law is passed, there is no town crier standing on the street corner shouting to alert you that the government may be tracking your phone calls without a warrant.
Yet, many of these surveillance laws do not directly or adversely affect everyone. I mean, I know I have nothing to hide in my calls, mail, or electronic correspondence – even the ones I intend to be private. I have nothing that could pose a threat to national security. And most American’s don’t. So what if I called my mom today? Or even if I emailed a friend my answers to this week’s problem set or wrote a scathing critique of restrictive abortion laws; they’re not going to call me out for violating academic integrity or being opinionated. But I should care – and I do. It’s not just a matter of principle. The Nation piece brought up the idea of gradualism – that the public would not notice movements towards war or despotism if the movements were slight and over time. Here, I think this idea of gradualism applies. Maybe the first restrictions don’t sound so bad or so unreasonable, but if we choose to ignore them and passively accept them, it opens the door for the introduction of much more stringent surveillance and possible government abuses.
Already alarming, and discussed thoroughly in The Nation article, is the government’s extreme treatment (perhaps better termed mistreatment) of whistleblowers. “Government officials concerned over possible wrongdoing in their departments or agencies who “go through proper channels” are fired or prosecuted. Government whistleblowers are commanded to return to face justice, while law-breakers in the service of the government are allowed to flee justice.” Again, think of the quote at the beginning of this blog post about Manning’s trial.
So, what’s to be done then? Part of me wants to shrink away from the digital world and idealize the notion of living “off the grid.” But that would be impossible and impractical without choosing to live like a hermit. I can’t opt out of the system, but I can hardly fight the system either. I think the next big disaster will not be another world war or a zombie apocalypse, but the discovery of an egregious violation of personal privacy or destruction of wealth/property/records via technology. Perhaps I’m overreacting, but thinking about it makes me pretty anxious.