An Anti-Tech Perspective on Edward Snowden

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We cannot develop and maintain the infrastructure that makes the surveillance state possible, combine it with a hierarchical political system, and then expect that those in power will restrain themselves from making use of these tools for less than noble purposes.   It is a naïve but pervasive notion that technologies are neutral (“Guns don’t kill people—people do.” “Surveillance technologies don’t snoop…”).

Furthermore, we cannot rely entirely on a steady stream of heroic disclosures such as those of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning in order to consistently rectify wrongs.  Manning has already been tortured and is now a character in a show trial. Snowden is intelligent enough to know that he will be pursued and may very well suffer a similar fate (“I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions, and that the return of this information to the public marks my end,”  Source)  And yet, will these self-sacrificing efforts suffice to bring down the surveillance state?  They may briefly pull back the curtain allowing those who take the time to look up from the screens on their phones to glimpse what is happening but then what?

Note that this is not intended to discount the importance of people like Manning and Snowden; rather, it’s simply to note that whistleblowers provide information at great cost to themselves in hopes that the public will then take action.  They cannot right wrongs single handedly.

The technology that makes global spying possible cannot exist alongside personal privacy.  The presence of policy, guidelines, laws, whistleblowers, and even Constitutional amendments does not change this fact.

The potentially uncomfortable aspect of this is that there is significant overlap between the technology that makes the surveillance state possible and the technology that makes the average Western consumer lifestyle possible.  The amount of overlap is almost certainly a matter of speculation given that the capabilities of the surveillance state are by their nature not clearly understood.  But it does not seem to be unreasonable conjecture to suggest that any society with technology sufficiently advanced to produce iPhones and Google Glasses will be a surveillance state.

Ross Douthat—paraphrasing security expert Bruce Schneier—wrote that “it isn’t that the Internet has been penetrated by the surveillance state; it’s that the Internet, in effect, is a surveillance state.”  But neither Douthat nor Schneier follow this important point to its logical conclusion.

Douthat suggests that likening our current surveillance state to totalitarian states of the 20th century is: “useful for teasing out how authoritarian regimes will try to harness the Internet’s surveillance capabilities, but America isn’t about to turn into East Germany with Facebook pages.”

Douthat’s concern about the surveillance state is decidedly mixed.  He acknowledges that “radicalism and protest will seem riskier, paranoia will be more reasonable, and conspiracy theories will proliferate.” But continues by saying that since “genuinely dangerous people will often be pre-empted or more swiftly caught, the privacy-for-security swap will seem like a reasonable trade-off to many Americans — especially when there is no obvious alternative short of disconnecting from the Internet entirely.”  He does not explicitly state whether or not he finds this to be a “reasonable trade-off”.

Schneier recognizes that these concerns cannot be addressed by the free market but suggests that instead “strong government will” is necessary (even while he knows it’s lacking) and he laments that “no one is agitating for better privacy laws.”  But a state that is willing to torture whistleblowers is unlikely to feel constrained by privacy laws.  As Edward Snowden has said of his co-workers at the NSA: “they do not defend due process – they defend decisive action. They say it is better to kick someone out of a plane than let these people have a day in court. It is an authoritarian mindset in general.”

The crux of what I am saying that is we cannot legislate our way out of this mess.  Passing policy cannot square circles and it cannot create a society that has both surveillance state technologies and personal privacy. The information provided by whistleblowers is incredibly valuable but if it only results in new guidelines and perhaps a congressional investigation then its importance has been squandered.  Literal dismantling is required and not simply symbolic tinkering.  So long as the technology exists, it will be employed for the ends that it is currently being employed.

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