must we resign ourselves to living in a total-surveillance state?


On Thursday, the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald revealed that the “NSA [is] collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily.” On Friday, The Washington Post followed up with “U.S., British intelligence mining data from nine U.S. Internet companies in broad secret program” called PRISM, almost simultaneously with the Guardian’s own article on PRISM.

Uproar ensued, and continues. (The AP’s Big Story has an excellent rundown of what we know — and, more importantly, all we don’t know — right now.) But if this follows the same path that previous such revelations have, nothing will change. The EFF might file a lawsuit against the U.S government, which will have no impact, because a few years from now, we’ll learn about how the NSA has doubled-down and created an even more intrusive, even more invasive, even more privacy-busting program via some legal weaselling.

Not that the weaselling is even necessary. Because we have our supposed Constitutional scholar of a president defending this (via the AP):

Obama asserted his administration had tightened the phone records collection program since it started in the George W. Bush administration and is auditing the programs to ensure that measures to protect Americans’ privacy are heeded — part of what he called efforts to resist a mindset of “you know, ‘Trust me, we’re doing the right thing. We know who the bad guys are.'”

But again, he provided no details on how the program was tightened or what the audit is looking at.

Obama said this, too:

“It’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” he said. “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

He cannot possibly believe that “100 percent security” is possible, can he? And surely he cannot have missed coming across that famous bit of philosophizing by Ben Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Can he?

Of course not. The President of the United States simply doesn’t see anything wrong with mass surveillance.

And then there are the idiots — to whom I will not link — who insist that there’s nothing to worry about in this news if you’re a good and decent person doing nothing wrong, as if privacy only matters to criminals, and as if no one had ever been thrown in prison for something they didn’t do. And then there are the other idiots — also not getting a link from me — who say it’s all our own faults anyway, because we willingly share our information on Facebook and Twitter and are so stupid that we actually think Gmail is secure. As if it were absolutely inevitable that that information must be used against us.

With so few people apparently genuinely upset about this news, and seemingly no way to push back against such surveillance anyway short of disconnecting oneself from the modern world and living like a hermit:

Must we resign ourselves to living in a total-surveillance state?

I don’t want to think this is the case, but I’m not seeing any other options right now…

(If you have a suggestion for a Question, feel free to email me.)

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Sat, Jun 08, 2013 3:51pm

It’s interesting how a great many (not all) left leaning people were all in a civil libertarian huff over Dubya’s Patriot Act shenanigans, and then stay conspicuously silent when it’s under Obama. Conversely, a great many (not all) right leaning people were clammed up on phone tapping, ect. and now that Obama’s in charge– “OMG! How did a sitting President gain such power to the point of violating the Bill of Rights? It truly is a mystery!”

reply to  Patrick
Sun, Jun 09, 2013 5:03am

Anthony Romero of the left-leaning ACLU said:

A pox on all the three houses of government. On Congress, for legislating such powers, on the FISA court for being such a paper tiger and rubber stamp, and on the Obama administration for not being true to its values.

Most of the left-leaning columnists at the New York Times have been extremely critical of Obama. Gail Collins spent her column today taking down every defense of this program. Maureen Dowd wrote:

Back in 2007, Obama said he would not want to run an administration that was “Bush-Cheney lite.” He doesn’t have to worry. With prisoners denied due process at Gitmo starving themselves, with the C.I.A. not always aware who it’s killing with drones, with an overzealous approach to leaks, and with the government’s secret domestic spy business swelling, there’s nothing lite about it.

Charles M. Blow wrote:

This is one of those rare moments where the left edge and the right one can meet: this government overreach is a threat to liberty.

And MaryAnn Johanson, who leans pretty reliably to the left, wrote a blog post that uses the words “total-surveillance state.” So I wouldn’t say that the left has been silent on this issue.

reply to  Danielm80
Sun, Jun 09, 2013 5:25am

Fair enough. (However, in my defense I didn’t say “all”).

Jonathan Roth
Jonathan Roth
reply to  Patrick
Mon, Jun 10, 2013 6:19am

I haven’t noticed this either. All the left-wing blogs I’ve been reading have covered and condemned this, although most are pretty resigned at this point.

I think the difference is that the left believed that Democratic party at least had motivation to do something about it when Bush was making a power grab. Now with Obama supporting it, and Fox News/GOP still obsessing over the IRS, there’s little chance of getting actual restrictions on these programs in place.

Sat, Jun 08, 2013 7:43pm

I thought this reddit post from someone claiming to have lived in an country that experienced the Arab Spring, and I think the scenarios that it paints are scary.

The yellow post was theirs:

Sun, Jun 09, 2013 9:51am

You and I live in a satellite country with little or no say in the matter. What’s worse, our government sees it as a cheap way of gaining control over their population.

It’s becoming more and more evident to me that the old 60’s concept of “dropping out” is an attractive prospect. The Alpujarras in Andalucia are calling me.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Captain_Swing666
Mon, Jun 10, 2013 7:19am

How do you “drop out” of total surveillance?

Sun, Jun 09, 2013 2:48pm

Encrypt everything, everywhere, all the time.

And then get dragged off to prison when the law is changed to compel you to have no privacy.

Sun, Jun 09, 2013 11:01pm

I think, unless you’re willing to see a Roddenberry or John Lennon utopia in our near future (it’s not that easy for me, even if I try), I have to resign myself to living in some level of a surveillance state. I think your qualifier of total surveillance state is a bit narrow and simplistic for the discussion that needs to be had.

I seem to come back to a less than perfect but applicable parallel to medical decisions. There are always going to be illnesses, some self induced and some spontaneous/ineveitable. Given that reality, every medical decision made, to participate in the healthcare system, to take medications, to have surgeries done or to take immunizations, is going to be a balance of risk vs. benefit with adverse outcomes and bad reactions on either side of the participate/don’t participate midline. Every single medicine, surgery and immunization given, even when given for a justified condition and done perfectly is going to hurt a certain number of people..that is a fact. The only way to guarantee not having a bad outcome from medical interventions is to not participate in medical interventions. Likewise, for those that choose not to participate in medical interventions including immunizations, medications and surgeries, there will be a certain amount of people (IMO, more) that have adverse outcomes (pain, death, loss of organ function..morbidity and mortality) due to their unchecked health conditions…heart attacks from coronary artery disease, amputations kidney failure blindness from diabetes..the list goes on. For the vast majority of people the answer to their decision is not at the polar participate/don’t participate end of the spectrum. The answer is, hopefully, a well educated individual decision that is somewhere in a gray zone in between those polar opposites that balances some significant degree of benefit vs. hopefully less degree of risk and adverse events. The reality, though, is that on that spectrum even with full consent and good decision making that we should strive for..the best circumstances possible, people are still going to make decisions and get hurt.

The surveillance spectrum is no different. You can say that we will have total surveillance and , in the process, open yourself up to multiple episodes of adverse outcomes including abuse, targeting, bribery extorsion etc..all while still not having complete security. The polar opposite would say that you will have no surveillance and avoid it’s abuses however, you will have otherwise preventable episodes of attacks whether terrorist, cyber, corporate, political, ideological etc with all the damage and adverse outcomes coming with them. Again, there is likely some point in a gray zone that most people are willing to accept between the polar ends of total surveillance/completely free of surveillance spectrum that is valid. The position on that spectrum varies individually just as much as much as individual’s healthcare decisions. I would propose that none of us knows exactly where the optimal point on that spectrum is, be haughty enough to claim to know exactly where that is or deride others for their calculation of that point that lies somewhere in that gray zone. (Interestingly, this particular problem, as much as any, seems to place polar ends of the political/ideological spectrum in the same position)

This medical parallel does fail slightly in that the medical decisions are ultimately an individual choice while the surveillance issues are civic/corporate in nature. It can be extended to be more relevant however. The US Preventive Services Task Force (in “independant” panel funded by the US Dept of Health and Human Services) is currently making risk benefit value judgements and definitive broad recommendations on health procedures that IMO, should be left to the individual and their physician. While the death rate from prostate cancer has been falling significantly in the last 20 years they have come out strongly against virtually all routine screening. This despite the fact that while a large American study showed no benefit, a European study showed a marginal benefit and 30,000+ men a year still die an unpleasant prostate cancer death. While there can be adverse outcomes to psa testing their is still a significant potential benefit that the USPSTF is declaring should be taken off the table. Ditto on no mammograms for women in their 40s..a declaration that seems to garner absolutely no concern from those who feel women should be able to make value judgments for themselves and have choices about how they will care for their own bodies. This despite the fact that, on a population level 1 in 68 women will get breast cancer in their 40s.

Immunizations, acknowledging their own adverse events, are quite arguably, the most effective form of healthcare delivery we have available. I’ve almost come to view, imperfectly, a robust intelligence gathering community providing an accurate volume of information with which to make valid decisions, as the closest thing to an immunization that we can have against terror, violence, cyberhacking etc. I’ve tried to get myself to Benjamin Franklin’s position on liberty but I just can’t get there. We have to have some level of surveillance in our society. My imperfect nihilistic Republican asshole position in the surveillance gray zone would be somewhere quite short of Prism and current rationalized ubiquitous Snoop Obama policies…something of a very focused Patriot Act requiring prior but attainable judicial approval on a limited number of subjects with the ability to share information between agencies such as the FBI CIA NSA. 9/11 history showing the results of enforced communication barriers between intelligence agencies should be learned from.

Sun, Jun 09, 2013 11:33pm

“the Utah facility will be able to handle so much information that its storage capacity is measured in what are known as yottabytes.”

It would have been much more fun if they had called them yodabytes. There’s probably a Greek or Latin reason they didn’t.

Sun, Jun 09, 2013 11:44pm

“The AP’s Big Story has an excellent rundown of what we know ”

This does seem to be a rather rare example of a good mainstream media fact based presentation of information. I don’t understand, though, why they chose to present it in what appears to be a fake question and answer format….the information stands on its own. Thought they were also soft and less than clear on calling out Apple on its statements and implications. The fact that Apple appears to be going along with this has to make me wonder if there is not significantly more benefit to what is being achieved than what we have knowledge of. You would think that Apple would be a big enough dog with enough credibility to call out the gov’t if they saw this as being an unjustifiable level of surveillance.

Mon, Jun 10, 2013 12:04am

why do you not see any other options?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  dwa4
Mon, Jun 10, 2013 7:24am

Why do you ask that question?

Our politicial systems are so entrenched that there seems to be no room for change. Obama was the “hope and change” candidate, and he has doubled down on all of Bush’s offenses against demcracy and freedom. Our leaders work don’t work for us, and I don’t see how we can change that.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Jun 11, 2013 5:28am

Because, in reading you over the last 4 years (despite frequently coming to different conclusions) I’ve seen you….

chew no less than Roger Ebert a new one for what I seem to remember was an innuendo of a small portion of a single piece suggesting a girl would only go see a ?sci fi? movie if she was on a date with a boy.

relentlessly and continuously call out Hollywood on misogyny right down to the construction of the trailers and posters..(sometimes prematurely..Tangled and Brave)

stand up and protest, rightly so, when Laura Poitras is getting her documents searched and copied upon reentering the country.

But, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you accept the status quo in an area that you disagreed with..not when it was a single filmmaker having her notes copied…and now, when it’s troves of people having their internet histories and records handed over and stored, and the very woman you were defending is involved in outing Prizm, you’re suddenly willing to “resign” yourself to that state?

I know this is your page and you can do whatever you want with it..but seriously..WTF?

Is this really MAJ?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  dwa4
Tue, Jun 11, 2013 12:17pm

And in all those years of complaining, not one single thing has changed. It’s gotten worse, in fact.

And those are all small things compared to what the US government is doing.

Why don’t you tell me how we fix this? Because I think you missed the point of the original post. I asked *if* we must resign ourselves. If you don’t think we do, convince me why.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Thu, Jun 13, 2013 6:27am

“Because I think you missed the point of the
original post. I asked *if* we must resign ourselves.”

And in your last sentence you answer that question by saying, “I’m not seeing any other options right now”, which is the point of contention.

“Why don’t you tell me how we fix this?”
I would say that you don’t need to resign yourself to this and your options would include continuing to write and point out the potential constitutional conflicts of what’s happening, what candidates said 4-8 years ago vs what they are saying now and discussing what a proper balance should or could be on the surveillance vs security/freedom spectrum. Just in the short time this has been reported there is huge discussion and confrontation of the fact of the issues..the ACLU is filing a lawsuit, disparate groups are finding common ground in their concerns..none of which are going to solve the problem tomorrow but they most definitely open the issue up for the nation to see and confront….which is what ultimately leads to a great potential for change. You shouldn’t resign yourself to something because it’s not changing as quickly or in the fashion/timetable you want.

“And in all those years of complaining, not one single thing has changed”
I would also say that there has been huge change in the last 8 years. Civil gay lesbian issues are advancing, taxes on the wealthiest have gone up as have capital gains, healthcare coverage is being expanded…all things you have written about There can be debate as to whether that change will ultimately provide better access/safety/performance of some of those issues but there has most definitely been change.

All of that change has been spurred, cajoled and forced forward by people not resigning themselves when things don’t go their way on the initial tries or when the people they thought they could count on let them down.