Bruce Schneier has a few words about mission creep: everything is looking like terrorism to our surveillance state.
One of the assurances I keep hearing about the U.S. government’s spying on American citizens is that it’s only used in cases of terrorism. Terrorism is, of course, an extraordinary crime, and its horrific nature is supposed to justify permitting all sorts of excesses to prevent it. But there’s a problem with this line of reasoning: mission creep. The definitions of "terrorism" and "weapon of mass destruction" are broadening, and these extraordinary powers are being used, and will continue to be used, for crimes other than terrorism.
Back in 2002, the Patriot Act greatly broadened the definition of terrorism to include all sorts of "normal" violent acts as well as non-violent protests. The term "terrorist" is surprisingly broad; since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it has been applied to people you wouldn’t normally consider terrorists.
The most egregious example of this are the three anti-nuclear pacifists, including an 82-year-old nun, who cut through a chain-link fence at the Oak Ridge nuclear-weapons-production facility in 2012. While they were originally arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge, the government kept increasing their charges as the facility’s security lapses became more embarrassing. Now the protestors have been convicted of violent crimes of terrorism — and remain in jail.
One other interesting twist: did you know psychologists have actually looked at the effect of constant monitoring, and among them are stress, distrust of authority, and conformity?
As the world’s governments march toward universal surveillance, their ignorance of psychology is clear at every step. Even in the 2009 House of Lords report “Surveillance: Citizens and the State” [pdf] – a document that is critical of surveillance – not a single psychologist is interviewed and, in 130 pages, not a single reference is made to decades of psychological research.
We ignore this evidence at our peril. Psychology forewarns us that a future of universal surveillance will be a world bereft of anything sufficiently interesting to spy on – a beige authoritarian landscape in which we lose the ability to relax, innovate, or take risks. A world in which the definition of “appropriate” thought and behaviour becomes so narrow that even the most pedantic norm violations are met with exclusion or punishment. A world in which we may even surrender our very last line of defence – the ability to look back and ask: Why did we do this to ourselves?
This authoritarianism is going to be the legacy of this last decade, and it’s going to be to Obama’s lasting disgrace that he contributed so blithely to it.