Why State Surveillance Is Worse
“The NSA isn’t doing anything that Google doesn’t already do,” runs the newly struck establishment line. “So you have nothing to worry about now that you didn’t already have.” As often happens, Richard Cohen is the most articulate mouthpiece of the establishment. How his masters must be pleased with him!
Let’s set aside for a moment the hotly debated question of whether two wrongs — the NSA and Google — make a right. (I’m told that, in our perpetually post-9/11 world, they always do.) Let’s also set aside the fact that, had the NSA not been snooping, it seems exceptionally unlikely that Cohen’s argument would have reassured the public about a proposed new policy not yet in place. It stinks of post hoc rationalization.
The establishment line is simply false. It’s not that corporate snooping is fine and dandy. It can be a problem, and a big one. But here’s why state surveillance is vastly more dangerous.
First, and I hope this isn’t too pedantic, the state has violence. After it snoops your metadata it can do all sorts of things that Google, even trying its very best to be evil, could only dream about. The state can arrest you, and if it wanted, it could still detain you indefinitely without a trial. It can drone kill your family in Yemen. If we’re graced with a Republican president next time around, it might just send you to Gitmo for torture. Do you have rights? No, not anymore: you’re an enemy combatant, and the world is your battlefield. (Didn’t you know?)
That’s terrible, of course, but are there not safeguards? If the American people, still living under a democracy, really cared so much about privacy, why did they not stop it? Can’t we infer assent from their failure to act?
Sure! But only if we ignore the fact that it’s basically impossible for Congress to stop a program that its members can’t effectively scrutinize, and that none may debate openly. (Ain’t democracy grand?)
I wish I knew. In the meantime, though, it’s worth recalling that public opinion polls are garbage. Follow those two previous links, and it really looks like it all turns on how the question is worded, not on what these secret programs actually do, about which the public knows little. Recall also that public opinion routinely condemns everything that makes the American system a success, up to and including the First Amendment.
There is a reason that we don’t put these things up for a vote, and it’s not simply that they wouldn’t pass — although, yeah, they probably wouldn’t.
We have these rights, and we keep them away from a majority vote, because the majority doesn’t need them, and minorities do need them. That’s particularly true of feared and hated minorities, like Muslim Americans right now. Or, closer to home, like gay and lesbian Americans only a generation ago. As a member of the latter group, I am exceptionally aware of the fact that we could never have gotten where we are today — mostly safe and almost legally equal — without these often unpopular rights.
We gays and lesbians needed those rights to assemble, educate and care for ourselves, make our case, and win over the public. We’d have been much worse off if we’d been left to pure democracy. As anyone of more than trivial minority identity can tell you, democracy is a straw fence, and on the other side of it there’s a real tiger.
You in the majority need these rights — cherished so well by minorities — because sometimes you in the majority are wrong, and you’re not necessarily going to know about it beforehand. You will be better off in the long run with a check on your power. Everyone is.
By contrast, corporate spying — while bad — has easier remedies. It doesn’t take a majority of customers speaking out and voting over many years to prevent a corporate misuse of your data. All it takes is a minority, or an individual, who educates himself and acts accordingly.
In the private sector, if you don’t want privacy, that’s fine. Let your freak flag fly. If you do want privacy, you can shop around for the online experience you prefer. You will never need to gather 51% of your friends (or more!) to get it, never need to raise money, never need to go door-to-door petitioning, and — best of all — never need to fear corporate arrest or drone killing.
Will your data sometimes be used in ways you don’t like, find embarrassing, or suffer from? Of course it will, and of course that’s bad. But that’s still a better deal than knowing for certain that you’re being spied on, facing potentially much more severe penalties, and never being able to trust anyone at all.