Following Snowden’s appearance on Dotcom’s flopped ‘moment of truth’ there can be no New Zealander who is not aware that their every electronic communication is open to Big Daddy’s eavesdropping. However, I have noticed that by no means all New Zealanders seem to consider that Snowden, by his revelations, has done them a particular favour. Their position, that I have heard expressed repeatedly, is that as they are not villains, they have nothing to hide from public view and nothing to fear should someone listen in on their private communications.
I have felt deeply worried about this attitude, but not been able to put my finger on the valid counter argument that I felt must exist. I remember at boarding school it was considered exceptionally wrong to read another boy’s letters from home. I was brought up to believe that everyone was entitled to their privacy. In my search for an answer to the question, it was a no brainer to go to Glenn Greenwald, who has done so much to amplify Snowden’s whistleblowing. Glenn clearly considers this a matter of importance. A Google search brought me to this twenty minute video clip of Glenn addressing an audience in Rio de Janeiro. It explained to me the reasons for my unease in an impressively articulate fashion.
For those who cannot spare the time to watch the full twenty minutes, here is a brief summary of Glenn’s arguments:
- · People, who say they commit no ill and that therefore privacy is not important to them, deceive themselves. They put passwords on their computers and social media accounts, lock the toilet door etc. Everyone has things they know they don’t want outsiders to know.
- · When people tell Glenn that they have no secrets to hide, he always gives them his email address and says “What I want you to do when you get home is email me the passwords to all of your email accounts, not just the nice, respectable work one in your name, but all of them, because I want to be able to just troll through what it is you’re doing online, read what I want to read and publish whatever I find interesting. After all, if you’re not a bad person, if you’re doing nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide.” No one has ever taken up his offer.
- · The truth is that humans are both social animals and private individuals and all need a space which is entirely their own. Everyone, not just criminals, have things they do not wish released into the public domain: conversations and relationships with friends, lawyers, doctors, lovers, etc.
- · Privacy is a natural craving. Everyone, who feels their actions can be observed by others, alters their behaviour accordingly. Nervous of society’s opinions, they behave not as they might wish to behave, but become more conformist and compliant.
- · Starting with Bentham and Foucault, modern social science has found that the way to control large and possibly dissident populations is to make them aware that though they may not be under continuous observations, any action at any time can be observed by the hidden watchers. “Mass surveillance creates a prison of the mind… which is much more effective than brute force could ever be.”
· Glenn quotes from Orwell’s dystopia 1984 “There was, of course, no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment.” He went on to say, “At any rate, they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live, did live, from habit that became instinct, in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard and except in darkness every movement scrutinized.”
· “ a society in which people can be monitored at all times is a society that breeds conformity and obedience and submission, which is why every tyrant, the most overt to the most subtle, craves that system. Conversely, even more importantly, it is a realm of privacy, the ability to go somewhere, where we can think and reason and interact and speak without the judgmental eyes of others being cast upon us, in which creativity and exploration and dissent exclusively reside, and that is the reason why, when we allow a society to exist in which we’re subject to constant monitoring, we allow the essence of human freedom to be severely crippled.”
· For most citizens terrorism and crime are the obvious reasons for mass surveillance. Those who actually hold power have a much broader view of what activities are undesirable; any activism or expression of dissent that could lead to a reduction in their power!
· An individual may for the time being, having no desire to object to those who wield power in society, feel unthreatened by mass surveillance. However, that is for the present. No one can say for certain that in the future they will not be faced with decisions from the powerful that they will wish to dispute, but by having now compliantly accepted the system, will then find that they must succumb to it.