A dictator's dream, Made in America

Commentary: If we want to safeguard democracy, we have a lot of work to do.
Crosscut archive image.

We need a new way to think about terrorism

Commentary: If we want to safeguard democracy, we have a lot of work to do.

On June 6, we remembered the tens of thousands who braved ferocious seas, certain violence and an unknowable fate in 1944 to fight totalitarian evil and protect government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Some 69 years later, we learned that our government has been secretly spying on its own people, intruding into our most private realms, so much so that government agents can now observe your thoughts as you type them. George Orwell's 1984 vision sprang fully forth last week as official, albeit secret, U.S. policy.

At the news, a palpable sense of shock spread across the Internet and Twittersphere. The capabilities of the NSA's  PRISM project are a dictator’s dream. Yet PRISM was Made in America, to be used with no practical limits save what feels like the rubber-stamping by a secret, 24/7 court.

If the reality is anything close to what it appears based on a few PowerPoint slides, then the scope of the intrusion is breathtaking. So is the program's bargain pricetag: a low, low $20 million a year.

The President assures us that all is well. Digerati concede the potential dark side of invasive consumer technology, but maintain that LOLcats and the App Store are worth it. Apologists wave privacy goodbye, and aver that while it won't be coming back "users" are okay with that.

Imagine telling that to the men who stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944, the men who knew that you must always work (and in their lives, fight) to uphold the democratic ideals that make you free.

It is a fair bet that when you equip even a democratic government with the oppressive tools of a totalitarian regime, something bad can happen. Information is power, and PRISM is information at its most powerful, asymmetric and un-American.

If we believe that terrorists should not win by stripping democracy of its core values, then we have plenty of work to do. Government respect for privacy and its worthy cousin, anonymity, are fundamental American values and vital to a healthy democracy. The founding fathers feared oppression and persecution. Indeed, privacy and anonymity enabled the freedom of thought that made envisioning and creating our radical democracy possible.

We would do well to impress the democratic value of privacy on all generations, and to share stories about the good that has come from it through political history. Civil rights, gay and lesbian rights, women's rights, the end of anti-miscegenation laws. This movement for fairness and equality didn't burst forth from the mainstream of society, it began at the edges and fringes and grew.

We have been in this privacy-security nexus before, right down to the metadata. The Cold War project named HTLINGUAL was a CIA program that opened thousands of pieces of mail and even logged "mail covers" — the TO and FROM addresses on envelopes — as a way to gather information. As Watergate flared in the early 1970s and the HTLINGUAL program over-ripened it ensnared political enemies of the administration. Idaho Senator Frank Church's 1975 committee exposed this domestic spying and Congress put legal limits on it.

There are compelling reasons why the most stringent legal protections apply to now quaint information technologies such as postal mail and telephone landlines, and why making secret recordings of conversations is illegal in states like Washington. Similar protections ought to apply to new technologies as they come online. It will take political heavy lifting in the legislative branch, as it did before, to make it happen. Call your congresswoman.

But don’t forget to call, e-mail, blog and tweet your digital service providers too. They’re the ones who either cooperated or stood oblivious while privacy was being shredded. If customers are aghast that their online providers appear to have been in line to collaborate with the PRISM project, then pickets real or virtual are appropriate democratic expressions of that frustration. Nothing moves a company faster than bad PR, except customers in full retreat. Find out how the companies you do business with view and protect privacy, then align your dollars with your beliefs.

It’s time to view terrorism through a better lens. The threats from terrorism are many and real. But terrorism is not the only threat we face, or even the gravest threat. It is hardly a reason to incrementally abandon democracy in favor of a shiny new and unaccountable surveillance state.

Crosscut archive image.

Credit: Flickr user Whipper_snapper

We should put our headlong rush into all things digital in perspective. We need a better balance between privacy and security, but we also need to value and preserve our analog lives. Your landline call has a stronger legal protection than your cellphone call. Snail mail enjoys more legal protection than e-mail. A paper and ink book doesn't reveal what you're reading to anyone. And if you want to listen to a cheesy disco album 50 times in a weekend, your turntable won’t tell the mothership how to target market you.

Digital over-dependence does present a social and political risk: It's called a "lack of resiliency," in the language of emergency managers. There will be days when the power goes out or the cell phones jam or Internet data is stolen by bad actors. Best not to forget how to write down a long thought, describe an idea or run an entire organization on the fly with pen, paper and the wits of your team.

In the glare of PRISM, let's understand that technology does not ordain our fate. Think different, but also for yourself, because the privacy-security tug-of-war is trickling down to local governments too. Municipalities and police departments everywhere, quietly and without much oversight on the part of elected leaders, are rapidly acquiring inexpensive NSA-like tools and putting them to use without oversight or transparency.

Until our laws catch up, the local sphere is where individuals can engage politically to work for stronger protections. There, and at the national level, every day is D-Day for democracy.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Matt A. Fikse

Matt A. Fikse

Matt Fikse-Verkerk (Twitter: @mattfikse) covered urban affairs, politics, tech, and business at Crosscut from 2009 to 2014. He lives in Seattle and works for a biotechnology firm in Redmond, WA.