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Excerpt from Welcome to the Machine

ACLU (p. 174)

From chapter "The Noose Tightens "

So often debates about surveillance in our culture boil down to arguments about which is more important: privacy or security. The headline on the Privacy and Technology Web page of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), for example, asks “Is the U.S. Turning Into a Surveillance Society?” and follows this rhetorical question by statements to the effect that “Big Brother is no longer a fiction” and “The United States has now reached the point where a total ‘surveillance society’ has become a realistic possibility.” Yet an ACLU spokesperson responds with the underwhelming “Given the capabilities of today’s technology, the only thing protecting us from a full-fledged surveillance society are the legal and political institutions we have inherited as Americans.”

It seems those at the ACLU think the solution to government surveillance is to appeal to the government. Why don’t we just ask those at the center of the Panopticon to turn off the lights in our cells? And while we’re at it, why don’t we ask them (nicely) to unlock the doors?

The ACLU claims that its report “Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: The Growth of an American Surveillance Society” “step[s] back from the daily march of stories about new surveillance programs and technologies and survey[s] the bigger picture.” Inevitably, since the ACLU is a union of lawyers, its “bigger picture” is made of laws, and its recommended solution is to “build a system of laws that can chain” the surveillance monster. The ACLU’s system would be built of privacy laws, the regulation of new technologies, and a revival of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (protection against unreasonable search and seizure of persons, houses, papers, and effects).

“These privacy gains [sic],” the paper states, “can be augmented and many threats to privacy can be overcome if citizens band together for reform and enlightened policy. The hope for progress, in sum, lies in the hands of engaged [I’d prefer enraged, actually] citizens who avail themselves of the legal, technological, and political opportunities to act in the marketplace and the political arena.”

We are, once again, supposed to appeal to our captors to give us a break. You can destroy the world, we say plaintively, if you just leave us alone in our bedrooms.

The appeal to laws is absurd. Let’s take a keystone law in the efforts to protect people’s privacy: the Privacy Act of 1974. Among other things, it forbids U.S. government collection of information on citizens it isn’t investigating. Now, there’s some logic and protection for you! And who will be investigated? In the words of former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, “If a person is innocent of a crime, then he is not a suspect.” (This would be his version of, “So long as you do what we tell you, you have nothing to hide, and nothing to fear.”) In any case, according to a 1989 study by OMB Watch, the Privacy Act should apply to twelve U.S. government agencies maintaining 539 record systems containing 3.5 billion records. An agency is exempted from the Privacy Act when the government decides to investigate you. Or if there’s a national security issue at stake. Or if the government buys the information about you from a corporate source such as ChoicePoint or Axciom. The FBI has fingerprint and other data on tens of millions of Americans. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of Health and Human Services maintain the name, address, social security number, and quarterly wages of everyone working in the country. Every state government maintains records of names, addresses, descriptions, and photographs of motor vehicle drivers.

The “dilemma” between “privacy” and “security” confronts a false problem with false choices. Since the foundation of the problem isn’t the invasion by technological means of a legal right to privacy, law and technology are not the solutions. The problem is centralization of power, and the answer is the fundamental reconfiguring of power relations.