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Surveillance Cameras

What do Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro have in common with the CEOs of Google and LinkedIn? Before this week, one ostensibly would’ve had to limit one’s answer to “they like to eat and breath”; but as of yesterday, they claim a different connection.

On Monday, the heads of seven of the world’s biggest and most formidable tech companies (AOL, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo) released a joint statement concerning “Global Government Surveillance Reform” – a call for regimes around the world to adhere to basic norms concerning the right to privacy and free speech. This surprisingly reasonable eleven-line statement reads:

The undersigned companies believe that it is time for the world’s governments to address the practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information.

While the undersigned companies understand that governments need to take action to protect their citizens’ safety and security, we strongly believe that current laws and practices need to be reformed.

Consistent with established global norms of free expression and privacy and with the goals of ensuring that government law enforcement and intelligence efforts are rule-bound, narrowly tailored, transparent, and subject to oversight, we hereby call on governments to endorse the following principles and enact reforms that would put these principles into action.

Some people may cry hypocrisy here. After all, Facebook stores every jot of your personal information, even if you decide to quit the site. (Just like LinkedIn somehow knows it all before you’ve even joined). And Google has become one of the most lucrative companies on the planet largely by selling advertising based on highly user-specific data pulled from your search queries. But I would object to those who immediately point fingers, scoff hypocrite, and equate the past actions of these seven with the activities they wish to proscribe for governments.

Sure, no one thought that these tech behemoths were using our keystrokes to lend us a hand, but their oversight is qualitatively different for two essential reasons. First: governments, not private businesses, exist given our consent, and are the only institutions we task with making laws, not just following them. And second: AOL doesn’t have an army or police force and Twitter doesn’t have a prison system. The same does not go for Uncle Sam.

But back to Atwood and Ishiguro, those folks who probably aren’t in love with the fact that I can Google “the handmaid’s tale full text” or “the remains of the day full text,” and receive a combined nine-digits of search results. Nevertheless, those two novelists along with 560 others (including 5 Nobel laureates) from 80 countries released on Tuesday a petition titled, “A Stand for Democracy in the Digital Age”. While these authors could have come together to stand against digital piracy’s assault on longstanding copyright law, they instead united to “appeal in defense of civil liberties against surveillance by corporations and governments.”

Their lucid petition is worth reading in its entirely and signing, but one section in particular struck me as both prescient and eternally, essentially true.

The basic pillar of democracy is the inviolable integrity of the individual. Human integrity extends beyond the physical body. In their thoughts and in their personal environments and communications, all humans have the right to remain unobserved and unmolested.

This fundamental human right has been rendered null and void through abuse of technological developments by states and corporations for mass surveillance purposes.

A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy.

Among the bullet points which fall below this declaration, there are two statements which are effectively rephrasings of the precious First and Fourth Amendments.

  • Mass surveillance treats every citizen as a potential suspect. It overturns one of our historical triumphs, the presumption of innocence.
  • Surveillance makes the individual transparent, while the state and the corporation operate in secret. As we have seen, this power is being systemically abused.

These are truisms that our society must reabsorb and our government must recommit itself to. We need to bear them in mind when we evaluate the institutions we sanction and leaders we elect; and more importantly, we need to demand — just like these companies and writers have this week — that obscene breaches to our right to privacy are not merely abstractions, but unmistakeable signals that the NSA must become leaner, more discerning, and more restrained in its approach to ensuring our protection.

Lady Justice

__________

If you don’t think the National Security Administration has yet been revealed to be an agency out-of-control, mull over the fact that just last weekend we found out that the NSA has been spying on World of Warcraft players and — perhaps more eerily — has found a way to activate your laptop’s webcam without you knowing it.

Read the tech companies’ statement here.

Sign the authors’ petition here. (Then read posts from some of the authors whose names you’ll find on it: Martin Amis, Paul Auster, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Amos Oz, Will Self.)