In what has now become a seemingly cyclical pattern of new revelations regarding the extent of NSA surveillance, a new article posted on the Huffington Post describes ways the NSA is using “its troves of data to discredit and undermine individuals who the agency believes are ‘radicalizing others through incendiary speeches’ but who lack any ties to actual criminality.” Listed targets of the program are Muslims who appear to have some sort of online or public following but are associated with potential character “vulnerabilities” such as online promiscuity and financial misconduct. The Huffington Post article and the ACLU were quick to draw obvious parallels between this approach to national security to tactics used during the late 50’s into the early 70’s against individuals including Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, and other noted artists, politicians, and academics; see this article.
We can expect this story to reignite a fresh round of debates regarding national security, privacy, and civil liberties. However, the new dimension added by this element of the NSA’s intelligence program should help to push against two of the basic general sentiments frequently mustered in support of the NSA’s programs.
‘I’ve got nothing to hide’
Almost anyone who’s had a conversation about the breadth of government surveillance has probably wrestled with the idea that even if the legality or propriety of government surveillance is questionable it should be allowed especially when we have nothing to hide. This line, and its more eloquent variations, functions as both a justification to the breadth of the surveillance program and also as a rhetorical sledge hammer. The first function takes for granted a conclusion over which our nation is currently debating and has not settled; that is the extent of our rights to privacy in our homes and communications. By coming close to saying that anyone who has something to hide ought to be surveilled, we inherently endorse a collective suspicion unbounded by any set of values that takes as a default the right to privacy.
At the same time when a politician or academic says they have nothing to hide it becomes increasingly silly to muster a response. Someone faced with such an argument has basically to wrangle with the first justification on increasingly irrelevant and flaunted legal grounds. But still, our instincts should at least bring us to feel that not everyone who has something to hide, no matter how tenuously connected to national defense, ought to be watched and wiretapped. But claiming that we have nothing to hide ignores the human reality screaming us in the face, namely, the complete irrelevance of having secrets with your right to privacy.
The obviousness of the “I’ve got nothing to hide” line of argument is typically rendered in the rhetorical form to stunt helpful conversation. However, these latest NSA revelations should bring to light the futility of this mindset. Whether its porn use, plagiarism, or other potentially embarrassing habits the notion that a person has nothing to hide is antithetical to human experience. Perhaps everyone has potentially damaging secrets that could be used against them, even if they are not criminal. The reliance and expectation we have that the government will not turn us out in front of our fellow citizens is simply too invaluable. We sacrifice a degree of privacy by enabling the government to seek out information pertaining to criminal activity. The “I’ve got nothing to hide” attitude jumbles the intuitive distinction between criminal and non-criminal activity and leaves an amorphous gap to be filled by an overzealous NSA.
‘its only being used against people who are a threat’
During Senate hearings held in the wake of the public uproar following the leaks, head of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, repeatedly emphasized that surveillance programs were being directed only at those who might pose a threat. And generally, surveillance such as those permitted through warrants approved by the FISA courts are directed towards foreign entities. These new revelations suggest something much more. First, none of the individuals whom the NSA has accrued debilitating information are suspected of criminal activity. In addition, the reports indicate at least one of the targets is either a permanent resident or US citizen.
The NSA is justifying its tactics by arguing that discrediting influential Muslim speakers and thinkers who are sympathetic to Al-Qaeda or extremism, according to how the NSA defines it, is an important element of national security. This may very well be true, but once the standard for surveillance moves past suspicion for criminal activity what standards do we have that can apply to those who consume extremist rhetoric or people somehow related to its proponents?
Because reputational blackmail is inherently a backhanded move we have literally no way to check its use. The tactic affords no means of oversight, even if that oversight is vested in the executive or a secret court, because it would be impossible to come up with any coherent standards that respect due process or basic legal norms. If any tactic should be curtailed for fear of snowballing out of control, it should be this one.
No doubt the fight over extremism is also a war of ideas, but if history has taught us anything low blows rarely payoff.