Reconciling the New Surveillance State

I’ve said it several times, but it is still astonishing to watch Americans use social media to air their fears about agencies like the NSA while ignoring the fact that it’s the social media company itself watching us more intimately than any government agency ever will. In a recent editorial for Newsweek, Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) calls attention to the fact that not only do Americans seem paradoxically to distrust government agencies more than private companies with a profit motive for domestic surveillance, but that this contradiction also skews rational debate in Congress with regard to the still-relevant national security role of the intelligence community. Writes Senator Whitehouse:

“I contend that a corporate-backed, ideology-fueled effort to deride and diminish the government of the United States exists and has gotten out of hand. I contend that the consequences of that corporate-backed effort of derision and diminution play out in the way America views the service of NSA personnel, and in the way Congress debates NSA programs.”

On the other hand, as reported in The New York Times, a recent study by the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, indicates that Americans are uncomfortable with the amount of data they increasingly recognize as the hidden cost of “free” Internet services. But the study also indicates that we are not entirely sure what to do about it. Writes Josesph Turow, professor at the Annenberg School:

“Companies are saying that people give up their data because they understand they are getting something for those data, but what is really going on is a sense of resignation. Americans feel that they have no control over what companies do with their information or how they collect it.”

So, where might that control come from? We could post memes and declarations on social media about how we demand control over data gathering by Google and Facebook and other platforms, but whom would we be petitioning? Exactly. So, when a representative, like maybe Senator Whitehouse, proposes legislation to regulate data mining as a means of consumer protection, are we going to fall for the hysteria again when the Internet industry tells us such “draconian measures will break the Internet”?

More broadly, though, this quote from Senator Whitehouse points to a much larger political and ideological challenge:

“It is ironic that some of the loudest voices in the debate about surveillance reform are corporations that make billions of dollars mining the personal information of their customers. It is also ironic that those who guard our liberty are challenged in the name of liberty.”

Efforts by Silicon Valley-funded organizations to leverage public concern over government surveillance while purposely ignoring private industry surveillance are driven both by profit and by ideology. And at some point, we crossed a very important line. While much of American policy has always been an attempt to balance the natural tensions between private and public interests, no other industry has ever been able to so successfully position itself as an alternative state the way the Internet industry has.

Listen to the refrain in geo-political statements by industry leaders like Google chairman Eric Schmidt, and you hear the rhetoric of stateless, global utopianism. To quote a recent WSJ article reporting on Schmidt’s address to European leaders, “Regarding regular clashes with European regulators on issues ranging from data protection to anti-competitive charges, Mr. Schmidt said that Google was listening to European leaders, but that the situation would be helped if Europe spoke with one voice on digital matters.” That might sound reasonable on the surface, but it is consistent with the smug tone of inevitability adopted by presumptive technocrats. Or to quote Schmidt directly, “There’s an old way and a new way; the new way is global and digital, the old way is local and proud, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but the old will be displaced.” Indeed, these pesky individual nations with their quaintly distinct cultures and laws should wise up and make things easier for Google, bearer of the future.

Of course, it isn’t just Europe. The rhetoric of the Internet industry consistently plays havoc with the American political psyche by claiming to provide the ultimate technological defense against government overreach, which means any attempt to regulate that industry’s practices will be described as a government threat to the existence of said technological defense against government. Presumably, this feeds a sense of obsolescence about states in general, and if we are truly stuck in that logical vortex, it’s no wonder Americans are going to feel resigned to the condition of rampant data mining by these companies. (By the way, this is the parable of the computer that goes haywire and then kills its own makers because it is programmed to protect itself at all cost.)

I think only two kinds of people believe earnestly in a stateless, global society: fools who think we’re just one big group-hug away from world peace; and greedy-as-fuck leaders of multi-national companies, who seek every opportunity to avoid regulation by damnable governments. So, I’m all for oversight of the NSA and such, but it’s probably worth keeping in mind that intelligence agencies track terrorists, drug dealers, human traffickers, cyber-criminals and hackers, and crazy-ass domestic hate groups while companies like Google sell ads against the videos those groups put on social media. Hence, to Senator Whitehouse’s point, it might be necessary to restore some balance to the debate.

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