The ironies of the past decade continue to mount: one might even think that the Ministry of Truth is operating at full tilt, ensuring that citizens fail to make the connections of current events to past events, thus preventing any escape from the downward spiral into tyranny. Following revelations by Edward Snowden regarding invasive electronic spying by the NSA, combined with an increasingly centralized federal government with sweeping powers that include the ability to indefinitely detain anyone without trial, one might easily wonder who really won the Cold War. (The bloody U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, America’s stubborn refusal to even consider the possibility of political secession and its outrageous overspending are strangely reminiscent of the erstwhile Soviet Union.)
But now that Americans—and the world—know about the secret government spying, mass protests will soon bring it to an end, right? Not so fast. NSA spying is just one program among many that use high-tech surveillance and data-storage capabilities to track the actions and whereabouts of innocent people without warrant or probable cause. The fight for not just privacy but the civil rights expressly recognized by the U.S. Constitution (most notably in the Fourth Amendment) involves so many enemies and so much propaganda that it is arguably unwinnable, presently. Here are some of the factors supporting this dismal conclusion.
The Bogeyman Will Get You
Laughing at a child’s numerous (and mostly irrational) fears is easy. What about the irrational fears of adults? That’s less of a laughing matter, because it leads to a range of unpleasant political and social consequences. The fear of terrorism has resulted in the adoption of a range of blatantly unconstitutional laws and policies at all levels of government, spanning indefinite detention of anyone, extrajudicial killings, warrantless searches and on and on. (Ironically, you’re about eight times more likely to die at the hands of a cop than at the hands of a terrorist.) In other words, apart from protests by a relatively small group of individuals from various political persuasions, these programs have gone largely unchecked. Objections become loud for a time, then they die off as the nation loses interest—perhaps over some killing in Florida where, suspiciously, the president fans the racial flames, maybe to distract from other scandals?
The undying fear on the part of Americans—fear of not enough health insurance, fear of terrorists under the bed, fear of crime, fear of not enough money and on and on—means that any government program that claims to take away risk or danger will win support of the majority. Steven Rambam, founder and CEO of investigative-service provider Pallorium, said in a recent interview with RT (previously known as Russia Today—yet another Cold War irony), “There needs to be a much bigger public outcry and frankly there’s an amazing statistic. Fifty-seven per cent of Americans think what the NSA is doing is perfectly fine, and another seven per cent think it’s not enough, so we have 64 per cent that are very much anti-Snowden.” In other words, most people simply don’t care.
Too Many Targets
As technology becomes less expensive and more powerful, governments are more able to deploy it en masse to track citizens. The problem is that if you raise the public outcry enough to bring down NSA surveillance (at least the programs you know about—you probably won’t find out much more), you must then get to work on myriad other programs, like law enforcement tracking vehicles automatically via license-plate readers.
But it gets worse. In addition to programs that use existing technology, such as drones, you have to keep track of new technologies, such as those that could enable prediction of where you’ll be at some arbitrary future time and even your likelihood of committing crimes. These tasks are all in addition to your day job, where you try to stay ahead of inflation (which the government says is virtually nonexistent—but those bags of Oreos just keep getting smaller) and falling median household earnings. One might, justly, wonder whether any possibility remains of escape from George Orwell’s world of 1984.
Surveillance Hasn’t Hit Home Yet
The difficulty for most U.S. citizens is that they have yet to feel the bite of the gigantic surveillance apparatus that surrounds them. Other nations—particularly East Germany, which suffered under the ubiquitous eyes of the Stasi before being reunited with West Germany—recognize the dangers of mass surveillance. And it’s easy to see how such a system, contrary to possibly earnest statements by some politicians that they won’t misuse it, will nonetheless lead to any number of nefarious abuses.
Imagine you hold some political view that is out of favor with the current regime, whether Democrat, Republican or otherwise, even if you do so privately among friends and family. Perhaps an IRS audit will set you straight. And if not, maybe an “accidental” leak of some information about what you look at online, or where you’ve been recently. For the real rabble-rousers, maybe there’s some vague connection to someone who once sent money to yet another someone who might have sympathies for groups suspected of terrorism—which justifies “disappearing” that individual. You know, for national security.
Unfortunately, by the time such things become more common, the usual means of fixing them will likely be outdated. Vote for any politician you want: the NSA (or some other alphabet-soup agency) will have the dirt to ensure that he or she supports no legislation that threatens those who hold power over the apparatus of surveillance and control.
It Can’t Happen Here
It all sounds grim, doesn’t it? Part of the problem is that yesterday’s outrage is today’s norm. As the slide into tyranny continues, we quickly forget about what were once undeniable rights, which have been sacrificed—out of fear—for some nebulous concept like “national security.” News flash: the U.S. is not immune to the same tendencies that have plagued other nations throughout history. And today’s governments have surveillance and data mining technologies that would make the Stasi hugely envious.
A turnaround is never impossible, though. But it requires an effort to think through the issues of technology, surveillance and government, as well as the limits of all of them in a free society. Near the root of all these problems, however, is fear. Until we learn to deal with fear, we will ever be at the mercy of those who would allay our fears by taking our freedoms and our privacy.
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