Who belongs to whom?

One recent story that keeps popping up in my news feeds is how various police and intelligence authorities are complaining about the security in the iPhone 6 being too tough for them to crack. I’m not sure how much of that is real, but it does suggest a couple observations we might make.

First, if it’s true that the iPhone 6 is the first device that’s not open for the police to read whenever they want, then that means all previous devices have been more or less open to government search and seizure at their discretion. A court order might be nice, but as we’ve seen again and again, the government routinely dispenses with such formalities when they become inconvenient.

The second and more important observation is that there’s been a fundamental shift in the foundations of our democratic republic. The government is no longer owned by the people. The people are now owned by the government, at least in the government’s opinion.

Think about it. When you possess something, you possess the thing and everything that goes along with it. In a nation where the government belongs to the people, that means the people possess the government and all the government’s possessions. This is not to say that each and every individual is free to help themselves to the government’s property, or that the state cannot institute reasonable safeguards to prevent inappropriate disclosure of the nation’s strategic secrets. But at a fundamental level, the people have the right to control the government’s assets and access the government’s information. The state may require that the people select representatives who can pass a reasonable background check before giving those people access to government information, but it cannot refuse point blank to disclose arbitrary “state secrets,” because those secrets belong to the people, and the government has no right to refuse to let the people access their own possessions.

But that’s not what we have in America today. In America, it’s the other way around. The government owns its own secrets, and is under no obligation to share them with anyone, period. But the people do not have that right. There is nothing you possess that the government cannot legally take from you, either by asset forfeiture laws or by spying or by data mining. You, as a citizen of the United States, are the possession of the US government, and your government is entitled to take anything it wants from you, with or without your knowledge or consent. Any protests in favor of privacy are met with annoyed frowns and questions about whether you’re trying to hide something. The implication is that you’re up to something evil, but the underlying assumption is that you’re interfering in the government’s desire to take what it wants from you, whenever it wants, without your consent.

This is what it means to be a possession of the government. There is nothing in your possession that is uniquely and rightfully yours. There is no information that belongs to you, such that the government is under any obligation to ask your permission before taking it. You are a possession of your government, and as such, all of your possessions are legally the possessions of the government, which is entitled to take them from you whenever and as often as they please.


  1. chrisdevries says

    I was always taught in school (in Canada so it might’ve been different in the US) that the people were the government. That essentially, in being informed about current events and issues, and selecting a small segment of the population to represent us, we were fulfilling our role in the vast governmental organism. This may have been how democracies were designed to work, but it certainly is not how they work today. People aren’t informed (for the most part). They believe the narratives that most fit with the preconceived notions they have (which originate in their socio-cultural upbringing), and participate in the political process mainly to maintain and, if possible, increase their own privilege in society. Only a minority manage to truly question the voice of cultural conservatism whispering into their ears and decide that some goals are more important than the selfish short-term gains political candidates promise to deliver.

    I work hard to question my assumptions and refine my beliefs, to learn about the ways of power and influence, and the various perceptual biases we are all subject to…most people, liberal, conservative, bat-shit theocrats…have been denied the privileged education I received and don’t know how to view changing one’s opinion based on evidence as a positive, even patriotic act. How can a utopian ideal such as liberal democracy flourish when the whole system was doomed from the start (precisely because it is utopian) and has since been duly co-opted by those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo? When every societal institution now resists the kind of changes needed to ensure our species doesn’t destroy itself and a good portion of the biota with which we co-exist.

    Sorry, I’m in a reflective, depressed mood. The changes we need to make are monumental. The timescale we need to make them in is rapidly contracting. And people still cling to the status quo like it is the highest perfection we will ever achieve. Fuck.

  2. lorn says

    I don’t see the difference between then and now. The government could always take everything. Consider the West coast Japanese after Pearl harbor or the spying by J.Edgar Hoover, the sedition acts under Lincoln, the not very well known violations of civil rights during WW2 protecting the Manhattan project, or the Tuskegee experiments, or the re-education and Christianization of native American children, or …

    IMHO, if you think things are different now, you have been sold a bill of goods, have been naive, or just don’t know how things have worked in the past. The only differences I see have to do with the visualization of information via electronics and that more information about the government gets out.

    Used to be your important information was on paper, in a file, in a building, possibly in a safe. To get to it they had figure out where the information was, travel to that location, and gain access. From the 1900s on the FBI and other agencies were not shy about breaking windows or kicking in doors to ‘fight crime’ or ‘foreign influence’. A lot more of that went on than was documented.

    You have to remember that most of the limits on extreme police behavior, like beating them with a sack of oranges or slapping them around with a phone book to get a confession, or planting evidence to bolster a weak case, were common and accepted as normal. Particularly if you were a minority or a member of a suspect group. These actions were not made up for a Chandler novel. Most of the legal niceties like the Miranda warning and strict limits of interrogations are recent inventions.

    Criminals were expected to be tough and law enforcement was expected to be tougher. Most police, and most of the citizenry, believed that if the police roughed you up you likely deserved getting smacked around. Despite what the law said the assumption was that if you showed up in court you were a criminal. The logic being that police don’t hassle normal law-abiding citizens.

    The difference now is that police and government doesn’t get such a generous serving of a benefit of the doubt. Most people have begun to see themselves as potential victims of government or law enforcement overreach. We don’t as easily see racial, sexual, religious minorities as automatically deserving rough handling. We more easily empathize.

    Combine that with the results of the civil rights moments. Everyone has been sensitized to civil rights even if they don’t really understand the concept or how it applies in real life. A lot of people further confuse themselves by assuming ‘natural rights’, or any right for that matter, exist outside some humans willingness to visit violence upon someone if those rights are violated.

    Add to that the speed of news and information and the fact that government and law enforcement overreach has become a thing, instead of a rumor, and it is easy to see that what looks like a massively increasing rate of violation is in fact the lifting of a veil of denial and secrecy. We have looked behind the curtain and seen how the sausage we have been consuming for over two hundred years has been made. It isn’t a pretty picture. But beyond the shock there is the hope of real change.

    But for that to happen you have to get over the idea that somehow, in halcyon days of yore, that things were simple and just and fair. We have to avoid nostalgia for a time which never existed. If anything the government and law enforcement are tamer and much better behaved. It also has to be pointed out that most of what the government knows about you comes from commercial sources. The government simply buys the information that you gave away, usually for free, to Facebook or are collected for resale by your cell and cable service providers.

    It used to be a running joke: Know yourself … if you need help call the FBI. Now you will get far better results consulting your credit card company, credit bureau and check the rewards program at the local grocery store. For a few dollars all of them will sell everything they have on you to absolutely anyone who knows how to to ask. As long as they buy at least ten thousand records and have the money to pay for them. Most of them will have at least some key identifiers obscured but it isn’t hard to make the connections between your information and you.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      You paint a grim picture, but actually I find that perversely encouraging. I think you’re right, it’s not that government misconduct is getting worse, it’s that we’re becoming more aware of it. And that’s a good thing.

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