The Chilling Side Effects of Mass Surveillance

I’m not a huge follower of TED talks, but this one by Glenn Greenwald recently caught my attention. Glenn Greenwald is the journalist to whom Edward Snowden revealed the NSA surveillance documents and secrets. Greenwald subsequently published those excerpts of those documents in The Guardian creating a firestorm of controversy.

Regardless of your opinion of Greenwald, Snowden, and the revelations Snowden provided him, the video is worth the 15-20 minutes to watch. It’s a well thought discussion that covers why privacy and matters and, more importantly, the chilling side effects of mass surveillance.

Here are a few items that stood out for me from the video:

Nothing to Hide

The early portion of the video debunks the myth that mass surveillance does no harm because only bad people, who have something to hide, care about privacy. There a few interesting points that he makes:

  1. The definition of “bad” may mean one thing to those who are “good”, but the people in power have the last say in what “bad” means. As Greenwald points out, for people in power, bad can be anything that impedes their ability to exercise their power.
  2. The words of people who say we have nothing to fear regarding surveillance don’t match their actions. For example, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of Facebook, claims that privacy is no longer a social norm, yet he has created a zone of privacy by buying all the properties around his house, As Greenwald succinctly states, their “words claim that they don’t value their privacy, but their actions negate the authenticity of that belief.”
  3. By agreeing to give up their privacy, Greenwald exposes how surveillance impedes creativity and freedom of expression. Why? People alter their behaviors to conform when they know that their actions can be watched at anytime. In his words, he says the “good” people say “I have agreed to make myself such a harmless, and unthreatening, and unintersting person that I actually don’t fear having the government know what it is I am doing.”

Internet as Panopticon

A panopticon is a type of architectural design devised in the 18th century by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham. The concept is to allow a single watchman to observe all the members of an institution. While it was devised for prisons, its design can also be used for hospitals, schools, and asylums. Since it is physically impossible for one watchman to observe all subjects at once, obedience is enforced by the threat that any individual can be watched at any time. Therefore, the key concept of the design is that the guard can watch any inmate, but the inmate cannot see the guard in the tower. Therefore, he never knows when he might be under surveillance.

In this context, the internet appears to be nothing more than a giant panopticon. While anyone of us may not be under surveillance at any point in time, the threat that we can be is enough to alter our behavior. Greenwald poignantly states:

Mass surveillance creates a prison in the mind that is a much more subtle though much more effective means of fostering compliance with social norms or with social orthodoxy, much more effective than brute force could ever be.

The Ultimate Enforcer

Greenwald continues to build his case by showing how mass surveillance becomes the ultimate enforcer for adherence to social norms and social orthodoxy. He states

 A society in which people can be monitored at all times is a society that breeds conformity, obedience and submission, which is why every tyrant, the most cruel to the most subtle, craves that system

The Implicit Bargain

By giving in to mass surveillance, Greenwald feels that we accept an implicit bargain:

If you’re willing to render yourself sufficiently harmless, sufficiently unthreatening to those who wield political power, then, and only then, can you be free of the dangers of surveillance. It’s only those who are dissidents, who challenge power, who have something to worry about.

This bargain should not be taken lightly. As he points out, even if you don’t plan to engage in dissident behavior, it limits your ability to do so in the future. Even if you never plan to engage in such behavior, Greenwald correctly points out that it’s important, in a free and democratic society, to have the whistleblowers, journalists, and other activists who can to provide a balance to those who are in power. Mass surveillance severely curtails this ability.

Measuring Society

One of Greenwald’s last points in also very powerful

The measure of how free a society is, is not how it treats its good, obedient, compliant citizens, but how it treats its dissidents

The Internet: Our Greatest Invention?

Greenwald opens his talk with a very pointed statement

The US and its partners, unbeknownst to the entire world, has converted the internet, once heralded as an unprecedented tool of liberation and democratization, into an unprecedented tool of mass, indiscriminate surveillance

I have written previously about why the NSA’s mass surveillance program concerns me and why privacy is important. I don’t want to rehash those points again. However, I would like to repost what I wrote last August in the conclusion of Privacy – have we reached the point of no return, because it is even more applicable in the context of this article

All in all, it’s a shame and a sad state of affairs. As a friend of mine told me today, he thought that the internet would be the greatest legacy of our generation, a free and open portal that would allow for the sharing and growth of knowledge. Instead, the internet may turn out to be the scourge of our generation, the invention that enabled the totalitarian state that George Orwell foretold of in 1984 and stripped us of our personal privacy and freedoms.

There are many issues that face our future generations, but the erosion of our personal privacy, freedoms, and liberties could be the biggest threat. 250 years ago, people fought those that opposed the ideals of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Those principles are the foundation and principles that allowed the rise of the United States of America. Now, that same foundation is under attack and being slowly washed away in a veiled attempt aimed at keeping us safe.

I’ll wrap this point up with one last quote, that Greenwald mentions in his talk

He who does not move, does not notice his chains – Rosa Luxemburg


As a footnote to this post, I’d like to provide a hat tip to the Gizmodo post, This Is Why You Should Care About Privacy, which is how I found this video. I strongly encourage you to read through the first half dozen or so comments to that article. There’s a powerful post and rebuttal that articulates why “nothing to hide” is not a good defense for mass surveillance. As the commenter points out, I may be persecuted or found guilty of a crime in the future for questioning our government’s authority to unquestionably capture and monitor all of our online activity, but it’s a risk worth taking if it helps lead to change.