The recent revelations of the existence of a massive widespread global surveillance system under the control of the US government lead to the obvious question of why it was created at all. I think it resulted from many reasons, all of which converged to this one end.
The most common answer (that it is needed to fight terrorism) can only be at most partially true. I have long felt that the terrorist threat was not an end in itself but a means to an end, a way to scare people into acquiescing to giving the government more power. But even conceding the argument for the moment, the law of diminishing returns suggest that beyond a certain point, the vast amount of people and expenditure that is required to collect and store all this information results in only marginally greater safety.
After all, if this system is so powerful as a danger detection and prevention device, how come it missed the Boston bombers? Assuming that the Tsarnaev brothers are the guilty people, they do not strike one as criminal masterminds who would have had the knowledge and skill to carefully hide their tracks. One suspects that they were using their phones and email and Facebook and all the other things that the NSA has been collecting and analyzing. And yet their plans were not anticipated.
I suspect that another part of the reason for the growth of the surveillance system is simply the internal imperative driven by technology. As technology and computing power grows, it seeks ways to be utilized. There are always people pushing at the boundaries trying to find new ways to apply it. The catch is always money and what the dimmest bulb has long realized is that all that you have to do is shout ‘terrorism!’ and the government will throw money at you with no questions asked and, even better, with little or no accountability or public debate. So it does not surprise me that all these powerful new technologies are being used in the service of allegedly fighting terrorism. It is a cash cow that is easily milked.
But those are the most benign reasons. The more sinister one is that the more information the government has on you, the more power it has over you. One of the worst arguments used in support of the excessive surveillance powers of the national security state is when people say that “If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about”. This was recently advanced by the British Foreign Secretary and senator Lindsey Graham. This argument is pernicious because it is used to inhibit opposition by implying that the people who oppose the policy may be having something to hide. It is an attempt to intimidate dissenters.
The point is that all of us have something to hide for a myriad of reasons. And all of us are criminals, even if we do not consciously break laws. We live in a world of complicated laws that we unwittingly break all the time. If you use the internet at all, the chances are that you have broken laws. If you have ever used your office phone for a personal call or used the office computer for non-work related activities, you have committed an offense for which you could be fired.
The reason that having the government keep a complete dossier over you is bad is that if your name comes to the attention of the government for any reason whatsoever, say for expressing political opinions that it feels are dangerous, all it has to do is to troll through its data cache and find something that is illegal or even just embarrassing and they have a weapon over you. In the past, they would have to observe you after your name came up. Now they don’t have to bother. They can just go back and see what you did before they were aware of your existence.
Take a simple example. It turns out that whistleblower Edward Snowden contributed to Ron Paul’s campaign and may have libertarian instincts. If the government now thinks that such people may be security risks, they can simply go through people’s stored data and refuse to hire anyone whose profile suggests that they might be a possible danger. And the job applicant would have no idea why they were not hired.
This is why another bad argument excusing the NSA surveillance state is that since Google and Facebook have so much information on you, what is the harm in the government having it too? Isn’t it preferable for them to have it since they are not using it to make a profit but to protect the country? The catch is that the government has much more punitive power than private companies. The private companies want to make money. They have no incentive to get you fired from your job or to put you in jail. The government has the power to really affect your life.
I think that all this data gathering serves mainly as a long-term insurance policy for the oligarchy. I think the government-oligarchy axis is well aware that the increasing concentration of wealth in an ever-smaller number of people is likely to lead to greater unrest in the future. They need to be able to monitor people in order to nip in the bud any sign of organized protest that might emerge before it gets too large. Things like the Occupy Wall Street movement created real alarm in the ranks of the oligarchy because it took direct aim at the root cause of the problem in the country. (In future posts I will give some examples of how Occupy protestors across the nation have been infiltrated and targeted so that they could not organize to protest the power of Wall Street.)
The classic case of an overarching government surveillance state was the secret police called the Stasi in East Germany, so well portrayed by that excellent film The Lives of Others. The whole point of the Stasi was to keep tabs on any people who may get uppity ideas about freedom and democracy and prevent them from being catalysts of change that might challenge the existing order. That goal has not changed with the current situation. What has changed is that the US government now has powers that would have been beyond the wildest dreams of the Stasi.