The Surveillance State Is Corrosive: The Case of Pamela Jones

A beloved web denizen shuts down her site, Groklaw, because the NSA creeps her out.
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Last week, tech entrepreneur Ladar Levison shuttered his email company, an act so painful he compared it to killing a pet, rather than comply with a secret government order he found immoral. He wasn't allowed to say what the order was, a detail that made his story particularly chilling. But the order came at the behest of the surveillance state, and he sacrificed his livelihood rather than compromise the privacy of his users in a way that he found particularly insidious. 

Perhaps it's apparent that I find his plight galling, and his story affecting. And even as it lingered in the back of my mind, I came upon the story of another American who is withdrawing from the Internet rather than subjecting herself to the surveillance state. Pamela Jones's protest is a bit different. The federal government didn't come knocking at her door, and the website she runs, Groklaw, presumably doesn't store any sensitive user information. It is a legal news site for the open source software community -- and a very good one judging by the awards that she has won.

Her protest isn't rooted in a particular demand made on her business. It springs from her discomfort at the knowledge that email users are all under intrusive surveillance by the government.

A lot of people are feeling discomfort of that sort these days.

She just happens to have expressed her discomfort with particular eloquence. To get the full effect, you'll have to read the whole thing, which I very much recommend. You'll see that early on, she recalls a time when she was younger, and had her New York City apartment burgled. "I wasn't there when it happened, so I wasn't hurt in any way physically. And I didn't then own much of any worth, so only a few things were taken," she recalled. "But everything had been pawed through and thrown about. I can't tell how deeply disturbing it is to know that someone, some stranger, has gone through and touched all your underwear, looked at all your photographs of your family, and taken some small piece of jewelry that's been in your family for generations."

She feels that same way now, "knowing that persons I don't know can paw through all my thoughts and hopes and plans in my emails with you," especially when corresponding with international readers. Later she quotes Janna Malamud Smith's Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life:

The essence of solitude, and all privacy, is a sense of choice and control. You control who watches or learns about you. Intimacy is a private state because in it people relax their public front either physically or emotionally or, occasionally, both. They tell personal stories, exchange looks, or touch privately. They may ignore each other without offending. They may have sex.

They may speak frankly using words they would not use in front of others, expressing ideas and feelings -- positive or negative -- that are unacceptable in public. (I don't think I ever got over his death. She seems unable to stop lying to her mother. He looks flabby in those running shorts. I feel horny. In spite of everything, I still long to see them. I am so angry at you I could scream. That joke is disgusting, but it's really funny.) Shielded from forced exposure, a person often feels more able to expose himself.

The post concludes in Jones's voice:

I hope that makes it clear why I can't continue. There is now no shield from forced exposure. Nothing in that parenthetical thought list is terrorism-related, but no one can feel protected enough from forced exposure any more to say anything the least bit like that to anyone in an email, particularly from the US out or to the US in, but really anywhere. You don't expect a stranger to read your private communications to a friend. And once you know they can, what is there to say? Constricted and distracted. That's it exactly. That's how I feel.

So. There we are. The foundation of Groklaw is over. I can't do Groklaw without your input. I was never exaggerating about that when we won awards. It really was a collaborative effort, and there is now no private way, evidently, to collaborate. I'm really sorry that it's so. I loved doing Groklaw, and I believe we really made a significant contribution. But even that turns out to be less than we thought, or less than I hoped for, anyway. My hope was always to show you that there is beauty and safety in the rule of law, that civilization actually depends on it.

How quaint.

This isn't how the surveillance state makes me feel. But I hate that my government has made one of my fellow Americans feel this way. And I know that she won't be the last to react to the rise of a radical surveillance state that has declared war on private communications. Its costs are far higher than its shortsighted, imprudent architects realize. Never forget that we got along fine for decades without the programs they're insisting upon.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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