Monday, December 29, 2014

Citizenfour: Should we fight to maintain a right of privacy, or should we follow Singapore?

I'm a fan of Laura Poitras's film "Citizenfour" (trailer here) about Edward Snowden and the revelations he made to Poitras and Glenn Greenwald laying bare the NSA's surveillance program on millions of Americans.  Despite the fact that we know the details by now, the film is gripping.  We may know what happened, but we still don't know what to do with these revelations. We are left with the sense of "Holy cow, what do we do now?" 

Shane Harris, in an article in Foreign Policy magazine, describes one possible response to these revelations, and that is to fully embrace this technology, ignore the privacy concerns, and grant a Big Brother oversight role to the government so it can prevent possible terrorist attacks and other social disruptions. That's what Singapore has done. 

In the U.S., Britain, and other Western countries, those in charge of gathering information to keep us safe are naturally expansionist in their view. They would like to adopt the Singapore model if they could. Here is Harris's description:
U.S. officials have come to see Singapore as a model for how they'd build an intelligence apparatus if privacy laws and a long tradition of civil liberties weren't standing in the way.... American spooks have traveled to Singapore to study the program firsthand. They are drawn not just to Singapore's embrace of mass surveillance but also to the country's curious mix of democracy and authoritarianism, in which a paternalistic government ensures people's basic needs -- housing, education, security -- in return for almost reverential deference. It is a law-and-order society, and the definition of "order" is all-encompassing.
... Across Singapore's national ministries and departments today, armies of civil servants use scenario-based planning and big-data analysis ... for a host of applications beyond fending off bombs.... They use it to plan procurement cycles and budgets, make economic forecasts, inform immigration policy, study housing markets, and develop education plans for Singaporean schoolchildren -- and they are looking to analyze Facebook posts, Twitter messages, and other social media in an attempt to "gauge the nation's mood" about everything from government social programs to the potential for civil unrest. 
In other words, Singapore has become a laboratory not only for testing how mass surveillance and big-data analysis might prevent terrorism, but for determining whether technology can be used to engineer a more harmonious society. ....
In Singapore, electronic surveillance of residents and visitors is pervasive and widely accepted. Surveillance starts in the home, where all internet traffic in Singapore is filtered, a senior Defense Ministry official told me (commercial and business traffic is not screened, the official said). Traffic is monitored primarily for two sources of prohibited content: porn and racist invective. .... [P]ost a comment or an article that the law deems racially offensive or inflammatory, and the police may come to your door. ....
Not only does the government keep a close eye on what its citizens write and say publicly, but it also has the legal authority to monitor all manner of electronic communications, including phone calls.... According to the civil rights watchdog Privacy International, "the government has wide discretionary powers … to conduct searches without warrants, as is normally required, if it determines that national security, public safety or order, or the public interest are at issue."
In the United States, our legal traditions and valuation of privacy do not permit such extensive warrantless surveillance like they tolerate in Singapore. We do not want the government to intrude into our business without probable cause of wrongdoing, and we don't want it to be too easy when they do.  

Still, there is often an awkward tolerance of rule-breaking by our security agencies--the CIA, the NSA, and the FBI.  Secret snooping, after all, is their business. For example, when we learned that President Bush had secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, Congress responded not with an uproar, but by loosening the restrictions of the Patriot Act.  When Snowden revealed that the NSA has been monitoring the emails, Facebook posts, text messages, telephone calls, bankcard transactions, and location of nearly all Americans, President Obama attempted to dismiss this warrantless surveillance as mere "meta-data" gathering. "No one is listening to your phone calls," said Obama--although it now seems they could do so at will and without accountability. When, prior to the Snowden revelations, Congress asked the head of the NSA General Keith Alexander whether the NSA had ever engaged in the mass surveillance of Americans he lied under oath. Similarly, when the head of national intelligence, general James Clapper, was pressed whether the government had gathered data on millions of Americans he lied and said "not wittingly." Several journalists who are critical of the film seem untroubled by the fact that these government officials are lying to Congress under oath. 

Michael Cohen in the The Daily Beast says "Americans have a right to know what their government is capable of doing and the potential for abuse; but they also have the need to know if their rights are in fact being violated." He seems wholly untroubled by the fact that Congress is being lied to, but criticizes the film for failing to explain that, so far,  we have no evidence that the government has misused the information it has gathered by blackmailing or threatening people, or by ruining their reputations. Well la-di-da. This rather misses the point: the violation of privacy and the threat posed consists in the very gathering of the information. The risk increases substantially when top administration officials are willing to lie to our elected representatives about what the government is capable of doing. It'swhat justifies the revelations and what made them necessary. The fact that Congress does not seem to mind much being lied to is of little consolation to us, the voting public who are being spied on. 

Cohen rightly criticizes Snowden for apparently sharing ongoing operational details of NSA surveillance in China with the South China Morning Post, and his (presumably) sharing top secret information with the Russians. How valuable such revelations may or may not have been to the Chinese and the Russians--who undoubtedly engage in the same activities--is difficult to gauge. All these issues will be important for a full moral accounting of Snowden's actions which is yet to be written. However, this film is fundamentally not about a moral accounting of Snowden's actions; the film is about the fact that the government is secretly snooping on millions of Americans and is lying about it to Congress, and what that might mean for our liberties in the long haul. By criticizing the film for not providing a full moral accounting of Snowden's actions, Cohen misses the key issue and the service this film provides.  For a similar criticism, see Fred Kaplan in Salon

For more than two centuries our privacy and 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure have worked hand in hand with the fact that when we withdraw to the privacy of our homes and communities, government snooping has been very difficult. The internet of everything and the Big Brother capabilities of the modern surveillance state as practiced in Singapore, and to a lesser extend by the our NSA, have changed the game. We must change and adapt the rules or get used to Big Brother.

The New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott (read his review here) has rightly placed Citizenfour on his ten best list for 2014. Go see it. The issues it raises will be with us for a long time. 

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