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Congratulations! You’re Being Watched

With revelations (yet again) that we are all essentially being watched virtually all the time, we might expect a popular backlash against such a massive and unprecedented intrusion on privacy. Americans may differ on a plethora of political issues, but there’s a common wisdom suggesting broad agreement on core principles such as individual liberty. Alas, widespread pushback against a total surveillance society seems unlikely to emerge, and having the full scope of such a program become publicly known may only increase its acceptability.

Modern America is built on the ethos of the “reality show” — and people want to be watched.An intrusive, Orwellian government apparatus is like a high-tech paparazzi that actually cares about your movements and relationships enough to hound you in your wanderings. Big Brother watching you means higher “ratings” for the spectacle that is your life, which is suddenly rendered worthwhile by virtue of having such a dedicated viewership. In America, being told that someone is watching you is quite nearly the psychological equivalent of winning the lottery: it can only lead to notoriety, recognition, opportunity, and fame. In short, people don’t value privacy as much as they do publicity.

Talking with people about the prospect that someone is intercepting all of their emails, internet searches, phone calls, and other electronic activities has yielded some unfortunately blasé responses. After all, this is a populace that has endured repeated incursions on privacy and liberty in the post-9/11 era, registering barely a murmur over untested and ill-advised x-ray machines at airports, surveillance cameras lining places of public accommodation, and online profiling to establish one’s preferences and “likes” in a wide range of commercial platforms. People have been carefully cultivated to accept such things, and the fact that it’s entirely institutionalized by now makes the question of whether it should be so merely an academic one.

To wit, a common reaction is that “I have nothing to hide.” Others may note that this is just “the price of protecting our freedom.” Some will even celebrate the fact that “the government is finally getting tough on terrorism.” Still others won’t even register a change in their lives at all, concluding that if this was a serious problem, “I would have heard about it on the news.” This is well beyond cognitive dissonance — indeed, we might term it cognitive assonance for its repetitious qualities.

Despite the mundane nature of (and tepid reactions to) revelations about PRISM and the like, the actual implications are staggering in their full import. More than a decade ago, a Total Information Awareness program was proposed to create an electronic dossier on every American; at the time, the proposal was ostensibly scrapped for being outlandish, but in retrospect it appears that its public announcement was simply premature. The culture wasn’t ready for it yet, but that seems to have changed as the public may be more inclined to conclude that total surveillance is just a cost of doing business in today’s world.

If so, it’s a dangerous resignation that people are making. Everybody has something to hide, and that’s what privacy is for. It’s why the Fourth Amendment exists in the first place, since without a domain of autonomy beyond the unwarranted reach of others, no one can be secure in their “persons, houses, papers, and effects.” Today, one’s papers and effects are largely digital, and the means of accessing them take place through the interfaces located in our houses. Our digital footprints are an extension of our persons — not merely crude avatars, but a thoroughgoing image of who we really are in many ways.

Some colleagues have suggested that we need to amend the Constitution to prohibit such incursions, insightfully connecting the surveillance apparatus with the war machine and seeking to simultaneously delimit the workings of both. Though well-intentioned, it’s hard to see how such an effort, even if successful, would yield more protections than the paper-thin ones we’re already supposed to enjoy. For all intents and purposes, the Constitution has been declared “quaint and obsolete,” and in some locales it’s literally placed under glass with the other historical relics. Perhaps it could still be reinvigorated, but not without a massive public mobilization.

And this is where things get dicey. Time and again, activists make the assumption that “the people” will rise up in outrage over some horrific governmental policy, blatantly illegal war, profit-driven environmental calamity, or gross political injustice. While some campaigns to move public opinion are indeed successful, and at times large numbers may take to the streets in protest, such nascent movements are hard to sustain when primarily conceived in opposition to something. An amendment to the Constitution would have the virtue of being proactive rather than reactive, but its text would likely be framed in the prohibitionist sense of preventing or curtailing misdeeds and overreaching. And the magnitude of the task may not be worth the effort if the result is yet another right to be casually abridged.

There will be no easy answers here. Our lives are thoroughly imbricated within the workings of the internet and other electronic means of communication and conveyance. The notion of “opting out” is a near impossibility for most of us, and even if strict legal protections were put in place there would still be no guarantee that our digital privacy could be protected from the increasingly wide array of interested parties. Reining in an escalating surveillance apparatus — as with its cousins, abolishing war and abating societal violence — will require more than passing a law. We will need to reconsider the baseline operations of our individual and collective lifestyles, something that is never an easy argument for any social movement to make.

More to the point, it’s not readily apparent that a war-weary, austerity-addled, disaster-fatigued, infotainment-saturated populace will be significantly motivated to take action. In his interview laying bare the widespread (perhaps universal) nature of electronic surveillance, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden concluded: “The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.” Perhaps some vestigial civil libertarianism yet remains in said public, but that seems like a long shot these days. Unless, of course, the decision was to be made in the context of a reality show: “Next on American Idolatry, which Amendment will be voted out of the Constitution this week? Stay tuned…”

Randall AmsterJ.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and is the publisher and editor of New Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012) and Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008). 

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