One of the more common responses we’ve seen to all of the revelations about all of that NSA surveillance, is the response that “Well, I don’t think the NSA really cares about what I’m doing.” A perfect example of that is long-time NSA defender Ben Wittes, who recently wrote about why he’s not too worried
that the NSA is spying on him at all, basically comparing it to the fact that he’s confident that law enforcement isn’t spying on him either:
As I type these words, I have to take on faith that the Washington D.C. police, the FBI, the DEA, and the Secret Service are not raiding my house. I also have to take on faith that federal and state law enforcement authorities are not tapping my various phones. I have no way of knowing they are not doing these things. They certainly have the technical capability to do them. And there’s historical reason to be concerned. Indeed, there is enough history of government abuse in the search and seizure realm that the Founders specifically regulated the area in the Bill of Rights. Yet I sit here remarkably confident that these things are not happening while my back is turned—and so do an enormous number of other Americans.
The reason is that the technical capability for a surveillance event to take place does not alone amount to the reality—or likelihood—of that event’s taking place….
For much the same reason as I am not rushing home to guard my house, I have a great deal of confidence that the National Security Agency is not spying on me. No doubt it has any number of capabilities to do so. No doubt those capabilities are awesome—in the wrong hands the tools of a police state. But there are laws and rules that protect me, and there are compliance mechanisms that ensure that the NSA follows those laws and rules. These systems are, to be sure, different from those that restrain the D.C. cops, but they are robust enough to reassure me.
Julian Sanchez has a blistering response to that, appropriately entitled Check Your Privilege
, which highlights that while Wittes, a well-paid, white, DC-based policy think tank worker, may be confident of those things, plenty of other folks are not nearly so confident, and that the NSA has made it pretty clear that they shouldn’t be so confident.
In a democracy, of course, the effects of surveillance are not restricted to its direct targets. Spying, like censorship, affects all of us to the extent it shapes who holds power and what ideas hold sway. Had the FBI succeeded in “neutralizing” Martin Luther King Jr. earlier in his career, it would hardly have been a matter of concern solely for King and his family—that was, after all, the whole point.
Instead of a couple wonks comfortably ensconced in D.C. institutions, let’s instead ask a peaceful Pakistani-American who protests our policy of targeted killings, perhaps in collaboration with activists abroad; we might encounter far less remarkable confidence. Or, if that seems like too much effort, we can just look to the survey of writers conducted by the PEN American Center, finding significant percentages of respondents self-censoring or altering their use of the Internet and social media in the wake of revelations about the scope of government surveillance. Or to the sworn declarations of 22 civil society groups in a lawsuit challenging bulk phone records collection, attesting to a conspicuous decline in telephonic contacts and members expressing increased anxiety about their association with controversial or unpopular organizations.
As Sanchez notes, it’s not just whether or not any of us are direct targets, but the overall chilling effects of how the system is used. And, I should note, that while Wittes is confident that he’s safe — there are a growing number of folks who have good reason to believe that they are not
immune from such surveillance. The recent revelation that Tor users are labeled as extremists
who get extra-special scrutiny seems like a major concern. Similarly, the story from earlier this year that the NSA targeted the Pirate Bay and Wikileaks
as part of some of its surveillance efforts is a major concern. In the process of doing journalism, I’ve communicated with folks associated with some of those and other similar organizations. In the past, I probably would have similarly noted that I doubted the NSA cared at all about what I was doing, but as each of these stories comes out, I am increasingly less sure. And, more importantly, even if the NSA is not
at all concerned with what I happen to be doing, just the fact that I now have to think about what it means if they might be
certainly creates a chilling effect, and makes me think twice over certain people I contact, and what I say to them.
It’s easy to claim that you’re not worried when you’re the one out there supporting those in power. It becomes a lot trickier when you’re either criticizing those in power, or communicating with those who challenge the power structure. Suddenly, it’s not so easy to sit on the sidelines and say “Meh, no one’s going to care about me…” And that should be a major concern. The way we keep a strong democracy is by having people who are able and willing to challenge the status quo and those in power. And yes, the US is much more forgiving than many, many other countries to such people, but there are clear biases and clear cases where they are not at all accepting of such things. And the more of a chilling effect the government creates around those things, the more dangerous it becomes to stand up for what you believe in.