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If I’m Not Doing Anything Wrong, Why Should I Care About Surveillance?

Secret surveillance has thrived under the indifference of Americans. If one has nothing to hide, then why care about being watched? However, over-surveillance has consequences for everyone.

  • Jeremy Carp
June 18, 2013

Cross­pos­ted on Huff­ing­ton Post.

Despite recent uproar over the secret collec­tion of Amer­ic­ans’ tele­phone records and inter­net activ­ity, govern­ment surveil­lance programs have long thrived under the indif­fer­ence of Amer­ic­ans.

A major source of this apathy is the endur­ing myth that law-abid­ing citizens have little reason to fear surveil­lance. If one has noth­ing to hide, the reas­on­ing goes, then why care about being watched? Senator Lind­sey Graham, a member of the Senate Judi­ciary Commit­tee, echoed this senti­ment in a recent inter­view: “I don’t think you’re talk­ing to the terror­ists. I know I’m not. So we don’t have anything to worry about.”

This is an oddly pass­ive response from a nation whose citizens celeb­rate their robust liber­ties and reject the surveil­lance-driven philo­sophies of author­it­arian regimes. Such a response is also an exceed­ingly narrow and short-sighted under­stand­ing of contem­por­ary surveil­lance and its far-reach­ing consequences.

In a demo­cracy, it is essen­tial that the lion’s share of power lay in the hands of the people. With the rise of massive data stor­age capab­il­it­ies and power­ful analytic computers, inform­a­tion is increas­ingly the currency of power. As the govern­ment’s capab­il­it­ies to collect and retain vast swaths of inform­a­tion continue to grow, so too does its power. This consol­id­a­tion of inform­a­tion is troub­ling not so much for its effects on any one person, but rather for its effects on the organ­iz­a­tion of social and polit­ical activ­ity.

Already there is evid­ence to this effect. Muslim communit­ies in New York, under heavy surveil­lance by the NYPD, report a chilling effect on a wide range of beha­vi­ors. Some Muslim student asso­ci­ations, for instance, have felt compelled to limit their outreach and to refrain from hold­ing polit­ical discus­sions in public spaces. Simil­arly, increased surveil­lance capab­il­it­ies have made it easier for the govern­ment to identify report­ers’ sources, damaging media groups' abil­ity to gather the inform­a­tion they need to report.

There is a real danger that polit­ical and civil groups, or even just indi­vidual citizens, will be increas­ingly hesit­ant to enter their opin­ions into the public and digital spheres. The cumu­lat­ive absence of these voices—­po­ten­tially stymie­ing such things as polit­ical mobil­iz­a­tion and public debate—will impact every­one. Simply put, even in the unlikely event that one lives outside the scope of surveil­lance, it is simply false to believe that one could ever live outside of its effects.

People with “noth­ing to hide” have addi­tional reason to be concerned at the prospect of drag­net surveil­lance. The further tech­no­lo­gies of govern­ment and corpor­ate surveil­lance penet­rate into people’s lives, the harder it is to control the content and distri­bu­tion of inform­a­tion about oneself. As websites, digital devices, drones, and secur­ity cameras harvest and organ­ize nearly unfathom­able masses of personal data, previ­ously anonym­ous indi­vidu­als are trans­formed into digital subjects, iden­ti­fied and linked to unseen records.

One’s inab­il­ity to control, correct, and, often, simply view such records can place law-abid­ing citizens in a precari­ous posi­tion. In the private sector, personal data can be used to determ­ine things like eligib­il­ity for loans, health­care bene­fits, or infringe­ment of copy­right. At the govern­ment level, personal data can be used to identify indi­vidu­als for crim­inal invest­ig­a­tion, restrict travel priv­ileges, or deny finan­cial bene­fits. In both instances, errors or misrep­res­ent­a­tions can have seri­ous consequences.

Unfor­tu­nately, personal iden­ti­fi­er­s—such as IP addresses—are notori­ously unre­li­able and often produce faulty matches of people and data. Yet, as corpor­a­tions and govern­ment increas­ingly inter­act with our digital iden­tit­ies, such records are becom­ing more “real” than our true iden­tit­ies, result­ing in opaque digital profiles which are unrep­res­ent­at­ive of a person’s true beliefs and activ­it­ies. In this way, surveil­lance is not so much record­ing inform­a­tion as it is creat­ing it.

Finally, the very idea that some people have noth­ing to hide is itself a fallacy. As Russell Baker writes, “I hear it said that people who have noth­ing to hide need not fear this stran­gu­lat­ing tech­no­logy of surveil­lance. And where are they, these people with noth­ing to hide?” Although penned in 1988, Baker’s point is even more sali­ent today: we all have inform­a­tion that we would rather keep private.

History makes clear that collec­ted inform­a­tion need not be crim­inal in nature for it to be lever­aged against indi­vidu­als. The FBI’s infilt­ra­tion of the student move­ment in Berke­ley during the 1960s, outlined in a recent book by Seth Rosen­feld, illus­trates this point vividly. In gath­er­ing troves of inform­a­tion about the First Amend­ment protec­ted activ­it­ies of (harm­less) student protest­ers, the FBI system­at­ic­ally destroyed careers, ruined inno­cent lives, and manip­u­lated the polit­ical process.

This is not to say that corpor­ate and govern­ment surveil­lance can serve no legit­im­ate purpose. However, it is highly mislead­ing to suggest that large segments of the Amer­ican popu­la­tion are immune to the consequences of over-surveil­lance. To claim other­wise—thereby discour­aging people from chal­len­ging the status quo—ef­fect­ively disen­fran­chises those who are naïve enough to believe the myth.