It is strange to see the reaction to a remarkable disclosure such as that by the leaker / whistleblower Edward Snowden about the National Security Agency (NSA) peering into all our daily, digital lives. One strange reaction comes from the political left: the left desires a broad and activist government, ready to protect us all, but decries the NSA’s snooping. Another odd reaction comes from the political right: the right wants government out of people’s lives, but yet embraces the idea that the NSA should be looking for virtual skeletons inside people’s digital closets.
But let’s humanize this for a second. Somewhere inside the bowels of the NSA there is (or was) a person, or a small group of people, who actively determines what to look for in your digital communications trail. This person sets some parameters in a computer program and the technology does the rest, sifting through vast mountains of data looking for matches and patterns. Perhaps today that filter may have been set to contain certain permutations of data: zone of originating call, region of the recipient, keywords or code words embedded in the data traffic. However, tomorrow a rather zealous NSA employee may well set the filter to look for different items: keywords highlighting a particular political affiliation, preference for certain TV shows or bars, likes and dislikes of certain foods or celebrities.
We have begun the slide down a very dangerous, slippery slope that imperils our core civil liberties. The First Amendment protects our speech and assembly, but now we know that someone or some group may be evaluating the quality of that speech and determining a course of action if they disagree or if they find us assembling with others with whom they disagree. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable search — well, it looks like this one is falling by the wayside in light of the NSA program. We presume the secret FISA court, overseeing the secret program determines in secret what may or may not be deemed “reasonable”.
Regardless of Edward Snowden’s motivations (and his girl friend’s reaction), this event raises extremely serious issues that citizens must contemplate and openly discuss. It raises questions about the exercise of power, about government overreach and about the appropriate balance between security and privacy. It also raises questions about due process and about the long held right that presumes us to be innocent first and above all else. It raises a fundamental question about U.S. law and the Constitution and to whom it does and does not apply.
The day before the PRISM program exploded in the national consciousness only a handful of people — in secret — were determining answers to these constitutional and societal questions. Now, thanks to Mr.Snowden we can all participate in that debate, and rightly so — while being watched of course.
Every April, I try to wade through mounds of paperwork to file my taxes. Like most Americans, I’m trying to follow the law and pay all of the taxes that I owe without getting screwed in the process. I try and make sure that every donation I made is backed by proof, every deduction is backed by logic and documentation that I’ll be able to make sense of seven years. Because, like many Americans, I completely and utterly dread the idea of being audited. Not because I’ve done anything wrong, but the exact opposite. I know that I’m filing my taxes to the best of my ability and yet, I also know that if I became a target of interest from the IRS, they’d inevitably find some checkbox I forgot to check or some subtle miscalculation that I didn’t see. And so what makes an audit intimidating and scary is not because I have something to hide but because proving oneself to be innocent takes time, money, effort, and emotional grit.
Sadly, I’m getting to experience this right now as Massachusetts refuses to believe that I moved to New York mid-last-year. It’s mind-blowing how hard it is to summon up the paperwork that “proves” to them that I’m telling the truth. When it was discovered that Verizon (and presumably other carriers) was giving metadata to government officials, my first thought was: Wouldn’t it be nice if the government would use that metadata to actually confirm that I was in NYC, not Massachusetts? But that’s the funny thing about how data is used by our current government. It’s used to create suspicion, not to confirm innocence.
The frameworks of “innocent until proven guilty” and “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” are really, really important to civil liberties, even if they mean that some criminals get away. These frameworks put the burden on the powerful entity to prove that someone has done something wrong. Because it’s actually pretty easy to generate suspicion, even when someone is wholly innocent. And still, even with this protection, innocent people are sentenced to jail and even given the death penalty. Because if someone has a vested interest in you being guilty, it’s not impossible to paint that portrait, especially if you have enough data.
It’s disturbing to me how often I watch as someone’s likeness is constructed in ways that contorts the image of who they are. This doesn’t require a high-stakes political issue. This is playground stuff. In the world of bullying, I’m astonished at how often schools misinterpret situations and activities to construct narratives of perpetrators and victims. Teens get really frustrated when they’re positioned as perpetrators, especially when they feel as though they’ve done nothing wrong. Once the stakes get higher, all hell breaks loose. In Sticks and Stones, Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon details how media and legal involvement in bullying cases means that they often spin out of control, such as they did in South Hadley. I’m still bothered by the conviction of Dharun Ravi in the highly publicized death of Tyler Clementi. What happens when people are tarred and feathered as symbols for being imperfect?
Of course, it’s not just one’s own actions that can be used against one’s likeness. Guilt-through-association is a popular American pastime. Remember how the media used Billy Carter to embarrass Jimmy Carter? Of course, it doesn’t take the media or require an election cycle for these connections to be made. Throughout school, my little brother had to bear the brunt of teachers who despised me because I was a rather rebellious student. So when the Boston Marathon bombing occurred, it didn’t surprise me that the media went hogwild looking for any connection to the suspects. Over and over again, I watched as the media took friendships and song lyrics out of context to try to cast the suspects as devils. By all accounts, it looks as though the brothers are guilty of what they are accused of, but that doesn’t make their friends and other siblings evil or justify the media’s decision to portray the whole lot in such a negative light.
So where does this get us? People often feel immune from state surveillance because they’ve done nothing wrong. This rhetoric is perpetuated on American TV. And yet the same media who tells them they have nothing to fear will turn on them if they happen to be in close contact with someone who is of interest to—or if they themselves are the subject of—state interest. And it’s not just about now, but it’s about always.
And here’s where the implications are particularly devastating when we think about how inequality, racism, and religious intolerance play out. As a society, we generate suspicion of others who aren’t like us, particularly when we believe that we’re always under threat from some outside force. And so the more that we live in doubt of other people’s innocence, the more that we will self-segregate. And if we’re likely to believe that people who aren’t like us are inherently suspect, we won’t try to bridge those gaps. This creates societal ruptures and undermines any ability to create a meaningful republic. And it reinforces any desire to spy on the “other” in the hopes of finding something that justifies such an approach. But, like I said, it doesn’t take much to make someone appear suspect.
Read the entire article here.
Image: U.S. Constitution. Courtesy of Wikipedia.