Mass surveillance supporters oversimplify war on terror

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To some an Orwellian conspiracy, for others a necessary price for democracy, mass surveillance has been the center of numerous controversies in the past couple of years. The person responsible for delivering the issue to the public agenda was Glenn Greenwald, an American lawyer and journalist. In cooperation with whistleblower Edward Snowden, Greenwald published the leaks that revealed how intelligence agencies such as the NSA were amassing huge sums of data on ordinary citizens. The Greenwald-Snowden standpoint on the issue is clear: mass surveillance at this scale hinders the ability of a citizen to be a free individual and thus damages democratic ideals. Not everybody agrees, however.

When pro and anti mass surveillance arguments are analyzed, it becomes clear that the disagreement boils down to a trust of governmental intentions. If the intentions of political power is to capture terrorists, violent criminals, and all other sorts of “bad guys,” and mass surveillance is just a means to achieve that end, the situation does look agreeable. After all, who doesn’t want to put bad guys in jail, right? However, if we believe the remote prospect that political power will work to maintain its own exercise of power, then mass surveillance becomes inherently dangerous.

“I remember what the Internet was like before it was being watched,” says Snowden, in Citizenfour, the documentary telling the story behind the leaks. “And we’ve seen the chilling of that, the cooling of that and the changing of that model towards something which people self police their own views. And they literally make their own jokes on ending up on the list if they donate to a political cause or if they say something in a discussion.” The list of people under surveillance, by the way, is composed of an astonishing 1.2 million American citizens, as demonstrated by the released files. That is a lot of bad guys for a country of its size.

Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, wrote a response to Greenwald which ended up becoming one of the most well-cited arguments in favor of mass surveillance.
The argument he sketches out in a post called Why Greenwald’s Challenge is Asking the Wrong Question on his blog, Lawfare, goes something like this: people should care about their privacy because the government can use the data for malicious purposes. Wittes claims the government clearly would not do that, so Greenwald must be wrong.

Wittes, contrary to Greenwald, clearly trusts his government. In his blog he says, “As readers of this site know, I do not hang out, intellectually or emotionally, in the human rights clubhouse. I defend non-criminal detention. I believe actively in robust surveillance authorities. I have no moral or legal qualms about military commissions. I don’t mind drone strikes. I’ll even — still — cop to harboring mixed feelings about coercive interrogations in the highest-stakes cases. #SorryNotSorry.” That is one way to look at it.

Without questioning which clubhouse Wittes actually hangs out at, let us look at how Greenwald views terrorism. In a 2016 post on his blog, The Intercept, titled
The Deceptive Debate Over What Causes Terrorism Against the West he says, “By pointing out the causal connection between U.S. violence and the decision to bring violence to the West, one is not denying that the attackers lack agency, nor is one claiming they are “forced” by the West to do this, nor is one “infantilizing” them. To recognize this causation is to do exactly the opposite: to point out that some human beings will decide — using their rational and reasoning faculties and adult decision-making capabilities — that violence is justified and even necessary against those who continually impose violence and aggression on others.” Greenwald, apparently, does not share Wittes’ binary worldview where the only characters are freedom-loving, democratic Americans and violent terrorists. Quite to the contrary, Greenwald observes that terrorism is a multifaceted issue in which both sides are to blame.
With all this in mind, it turns out that the disagreement between Greenwald and Wittes comes down to their views on terrorism, the very thing that mass surveillance is supposed to address. To resolve this debate between national security and rights to privacy, then, we will need to figure out where we stand on terrorism.

If we come to realize that terrorism is not a black and white issue, then there will have to be other motivations behind mass surveillance programs since there are no clear cut “bad guys” to be watching. And that, to me, is not a very pleasant thought.