How the U.S. Is Spreading 'Procedures of Totalitarianism'

What gives us the right to spy on innocents anywhere abroad without any constraints?
Ivan McClellan Photography/Flickr

On Wednesday evening, Eben Moglen of the Software Freedom Law Center delivered the first in a series of lectures at Columbia Law School on Edward Snowden, how to conceive of his leaks, and the impact they're likely to have on the course of world history.

Moglen, a professor of law and legal history at Columbia, felt compelled to begin speaking on these subjects due in part to the radical position being taken by the U.S. and allied governments. As he put it, "We are being told that spying on entire societies is normal." In order to carry out that spying, the U.S. is employing "procedures of totalitarianism," he argued. 

Those are strong words. 

On reflection, I find it hard to argue with them. The Obama Administration has been careful to pretend that it favors strict limits that prevent Americans from being spied upon, but no one denies that when it comes to the citizens of foreign countries, the U.S. believes we should be totally unconstrained in hovering up whatever information we see fit, targeting not just foreign militaries and bureaucrats but regular citizens too. In our view, their phone calls, emails, and web-browsing habits are all fair game, even if citizens are not at all suspected of terrorism or any other crime. It is no exaggeration to say that we've constructed sufficient infrastructure to gather and store more information on innocents than any government in history, totalitarian or otherwise. And our occasionally explicit goal is, in fact, total information awareness.  

The odds that an American will die in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil are extremely low. Over the last four decades, lightning has killed more Americans than terrorism. Yet the government uses the prevention of terrorist attacks to justify institutionalizing unconstrained spying on anyone and everyone in any country.

That isn't to say that the United States is currently abusing foreign citizens in ways equivalent to bygone totalitarian regimes. But what is true is that, as Moglen put it, we've subjected "every other society on earth to the procedures of totalitarianism," or else reserved the right to do so even if we haven't gotten to everyone yet.

I intend to follow Moglen's lecture series as it unfolds. For now, I just want to restate my belief that spying on entire societies is not normal, and to say that the United States does not have the right to subject every nation on earth to "procedures of totalitarianism." Insofar as we assert the right to spy without constraint, we betray founding values, diminish our standing, and violate core rights of free people. Our least accountable bureaucrats should not be free to spy constantly on anything that any non-American does and to keep a permanent record of their words and actions. We're doing more than any other nation to make that totalitarian attitude toward surveillance and data retention an international norm. I'd be more proud if we were fighting to protect privacy and privacy norms against surveillance-state officials in China, Russia, and elsewhere. Instead we've embraced the mindset I'd expect of their authoritarian leaders.  

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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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