Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Who Watches the Watchers

I saw something on Balloon Juice yesterday that sums up how I feel about the government tapping phone lines without a warrant and tracking phone domestic phone calls:

The most common retort against privacy advocates -- by those in favor of ID checks, cameras, databases, data mining and other wholesale surveillance measures -- is this line: "If you aren't doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?"

Some clever answers: "If I'm not doing anything wrong, then you have no cause to watch me." "Because the government gets to define what's wrong, and they keep changing the definition." "Because you might do something wrong with my information." My problem with quips like these -- as right as they are -- is that they accept the premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong. It's not. Privacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect.

Two proverbs say it best: Quis custodiet custodes ipsos? ("Who watches the watchers?") and "Absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Cardinal Richelieu understood the value of surveillance when he famously said, "If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged." Watch someone long enough, and you'll find something to arrest -- or just blackmail -- with. Privacy is important because without it, surveillance information will be abused: to peep, to sell to marketers and to spy on political enemies -- whoever they happen to be at the time.

Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we're doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance.

For if we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness. We become children, fettered under watchful eyes, constantly fearful that -- either now or in the uncertain future -- patterns we leave behind will be brought back to implicate us, by whatever authority has now become focused upon our once-private and innocent acts. We lose our individuality, because everything we do is observable and recordable.

This is the loss of freedom we face when our privacy is taken from us. This is life in former East Germany, or life in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. And it's our future as we allow an ever-intrusive eye into our personal, private lives.

These are exerpts from Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer writing in Wired Magazine.

The problem I have with the Bush Administration and those who see no problems with this is that we are being asked to simply trust that the government is operating in our best interests. "Trust me," the Executive branch says. "We are good and work for your interests." But the thing is, we live in a democratic system where there is checks and balances. That means that each branch is looked on by the other. There is nothing in the constitution that asks the nation to simply trust those in authority. In a democracy, our leaders are not all-knowing gods, but humans that have to govern with the consent of the governed, and no, just because you win re-election doesn't mean you get to do what you damn well please.

The other problem I have is that we are being offered a false choice between liberty and security. If we fret about civil liberties, well we just don't care if the terrorists attack again. Balderdash. I do care about security and that is important. I would like to reduce the chance of another 9/11 as much as possible. But not at the expense of our hard won liberties.

For those who think they have nothing to hide, what happens when a future government starts snooping into other things? Would it be okay for the government to track your book or library purchases? What if they see you reading books that are critical of a certain President? What if they track your bank accounts? What if they question what groups you give money to? As the old saying goes, when you have a hammer, you start to see a lot of nails.

I consider myself of old fashioned Burkean conservative in that I respect the power of government. It's power is coercive; it has to be. I'm not anti-government, but it means that we have to respect its power and use it wisely. That is why we have the system of checks and balances-to keep government from taking on too much power and usurping ours.

I think we need to work hard to get the surviellance genie back in the bottle. We need to find ways to be secure without giving up our liberty, or else people like bin Laden will win, with the result a soceity that is less free.

As I've said before, somewhere in some cave, bin Laden is smiling.


Paul Wartenberg said...

I concur. I am reminded of a movie from 1998, before all this came to our shores:

"Come on General, you've lost men, I've lost men, but you - you, you *can't* do this! What, what if they don't even want the sheik, have you considered that? What if what they really want is for us to herd our children into stadiums like we're doing? And put soldiers on the street and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit? Because if we torture him, General, we do that and everything we have fought, and bled, and died for is over. And they've won. They've already won!" -- Denzel, 'The Siege'

shadoweyes said...

Terrorism didn't start on 9-11. It didn't even hit our shores first on 9-11. Can we please stop encouraging this myth that the world changed on 9-11? Perhaps for those who were not paying attention.

The problem is that this "whole new world" business is still mostly promoted by those who were too stupid to see this obvious threat coming and who continue to be more concerned with their "pre 9-11" agenda than any policies that will actually fight Islamic terror.

This is not singling out the GOP. Few Dems have changed in any way. Both parties are doing nothing to make us more secure - they are more interested in providing pork to their districts.