Snowden, Privacy, Liberty, Knowledge

“In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man…”
—Thomas Jefferson: Resolutions Relative to the Alien and Sedition Acts

U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden is seen in this still image taken from a video during an interview with the Guardian in his hotel room in Hong Kong


I’m reading about the Snowden leaks. Though no expert in the law or philosophy of privacy, I’m apparently a lot further along than some. Millions risk or lose their lives to bring us our essential civil liberties. Millions now are willing to toss aside these liberties to avoid risking or losing their own lives. I guess it evens out. Nevertheless, it strikes me as ignoble, or neurotic; a sign that half of America is not really the “live-free-or-die” type that believes the right to privacy is worth risking millions of American lives, their own included. It’s also a symptom of an impoverished understanding of privacy. To the blowing of my mind, I keep hearing “if I’m not doing something wrong, should I care if I’m being watched or recorded?” or “shouldn’t we do everything thing we can to stop the senseless loss of life?” My own answers to these questions are, respectively, “Yes” and “No.”

Weirdly, the current debate about privacy and security goes back centuries to theological debates going on in Paris and Canterbury, and even among the ancients. An old question asks: “If God is all-powerful and all-knowing— and presumably all-good— why then does He allow evil to happen?” A number of theologians— such as St Irenaeus, a 2nd-century bishop— responded that God had to let Evil be possible and exist, so that Man could choose between Good and Evil, in order that he might have Free Will. Otherwise, choice— freedom— would be meaningless. If God— or any omniscient, omnipotent force— could and did pre-empt all evils before they happened, free will would be a mockery, a sham.

Saint Irenaeus

These debates may have seemed like “theological niceties” to the modern secular ear— that is, until human powers began to trespass onto territories previously considered divine; until we had “Total Awareness” without any divinity and “Boundless Informants” without any archangels, capable of a frighteningly complete surveillance and panopticism of human behaviors. While these older theological debates usually masked some political and pragmatic motives, now— boy— the differences are as hard and real and pragmatically meaningful as they come.

Here’s what I mean: even if a governing body was all-good, incapable of error or wrong-doing (like a Jahweh or an Allah), and capable of acting with perfect discretion on perfect information, we still wouldn’t want it to do so. We need to allow for the possibility of transgressions, lies, and if necessary, acts of terrorism, in order to maintain a free citizenry. Why? Because in a world in which terrorism has become impossible, political freedom is a mockery, a sham. We, the People, or They, the Powers, have to allow for the possibility of terrorism, in order for political liberty— civic Free Will— to exist at all.

There’d be no for room for true political dissent, for instance, or necessary defiances. And, in a rule of total surveillance, and total law, we’d stamp out all the smaller, equivocal transgressions that make life livable, and make legal progress possible through the erosion of old and stupid laws. Many of our freedoms exist only by virtue of their unpoliceability and unenforcebility. Before, we couldn’t police everyone’s thoughts and intentions and conversations and their every micro-action. It was a merciful margin of error; a line dividing human from cosmic justice, nomos from dike. But if people or institutions can control something, you can be sure that they’ll sure try. And even if the controlling force is all-good, at the end of the day, it’s still a form of control.

However, I’d like to meet the person who thinks that our governing bodies are all-good. In a situation like the NSA programs, without checks and balances and public oversight, any all-good governor or governing body would, in fact, become no-good before very long. For those naïve or static-thinking enough to believe in “good” and “bad” leaders without regard to situation or power-dynamics, I bet I could still get them to understand that the “good” will not be in charge forever, and that no institution is made up purely of saints and angels. Which is why I’m so dismayed by PRISM apologists. The metadata is purportedly recorded and put on ice until a warrant is needed— I understand that— but where apologists seem insufficiently wary is that PRISM would give these institutions the power at all. The bare capability of total surveillance over the world population is already overreaching. John Kerry said PRISM struck a “delicate but vital balance” between privacy and security, and as we all know intelligence and military organizations have a rich and decorous history of handling things with utmost delicacy— especially when in collusion with the world’s largest corporate powers. What could possibly go wrong with our civil liberties hanging in the balance?

For this reason, I have greater “trust” in Edward Snowden than the institutions he’s denouncing. The occasional spy-jargon aside, his interview with Glenn Greenwald evinced a real keenness for the potentials of abuse, for the “architecture of oppression” being erected that makes possible a “turnkey tyranny.” He’s thinking historically rather than statically; not just in power but in power dynamics. Think of something like the Russian Czar Nicholas I, whose “Third Department of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Chancellery,” established in 1825 as his little den of secret police, began as a piddling 16 officers, but eventually snowballed into the giant shitshow of the Stalinist police state. Both the culture and the apparatus of secrecy and surveillance grew because there was no effective mechanism to neutralize its poisonous tendencies. And like Nicholas I with the Decembrist uprisings, or Stalin with Western capitalism or “German and Japanese aggressors,” all we need is some vague-yet-ubiquitous threat (i.e., terror) to justify its abuse. Snowden will have none of this talk of “sacred trust,” and that’s why I’m on his team. He understands the devil-in-the-details that will result in the gap between “Law” (the result of public legislature) and “Policy” (its interpretation and implementation).

Privacy will always lead to dilemmas. It’s a competing value, and not just in a political sense. It’s not only czars or governing bodies or intelligence agencies that should not have access to omniscience— even humanity as a whole should have its limits. That is, privacy is a constraint on knowledge— and a necessary one. We need deep, dark, isolated places where no one else can go— our homes, our computers, our thoughts, public spaces that are momentarily free of others. When the Enlightenment closed the curtain on the theological age of Europe, it didn’t simply resolve the tensions at the center of the theological worldview; it recast them into competing Enlightenment ideals, as between liberty and knowledge. Strange as it sounds, there’s actually something oppressive about absolutely free inquiry, or I should say, “absolute knowledge.” Privacy limits the “right to know” precisely because of the Foucauldian equivalence of knowledge and power— which is why the “right-to-know” should be a right of the governed and not the governing; why we should have FOIA and not PRISM. But people seem to be really light on the idea of privacy, having little grounded conception of its necessity or trickiness, aside from a bit of an aversion to strangers looking through their stuff. But we have to get this on the table, in public debate, in elementary schools, and pronto. Many thanks to Edward Snowden.

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One Response to Snowden, Privacy, Liberty, Knowledge

  1. brandonjoyce said: P.S. It doesn't matter who Edward Snowden is or is like or has done.

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