In Alone Together, her wise and worrisome new book about the effect of technology on human relations, Sherry Turkle offers this disturbing anecdote. A few years ago, when the Bush Administration's illegal surveillance program was dominating the news, she attended a Webby Awards ceremony:
When the question of illegal eavesdropping arose, a common reaction among the gathered "Weberati" was to turn the issue into a non-issue. There was much talk about "all information being good information," "information wanting to be free," and "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.
One "luminary" perversely referenced Michel Foucault's critique of the panopticon "to explain why he was not worried about privacy on the Internet," transforming Foucault's "critical take on the disciplinary society" into a defense of illegal government surveillance, as Turkle observes:
The panopticon serves as a metaphor for how, in the modern state, every citizen becomes his or her own policeman. Force becomes unnecessary because the state creates its own obedient citizenry ... on the Internet, someone might always be watching, so it doesn't matter if, from time to time, someone actually is. As long as you are doing nothing wrong, you are safe.
"Safe from what," you might ask. Not safe from embarrassment or performance anxiety, at the very least, not safe from exposure of what you might quaintly consider intimacies. It's an odd notion of safety that excludes the power to say, "none of your business." Even odder is the popularity among civilians of the law enforcement slogan, "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear." Virtually everyone has something to hide, including people who profess indifference to surveillance; they too engage in perfectly legal conduct and communication they prefer not to publicize.
It's hard for me to imagine that the Weberati, among others, really believe that only criminals should care about privacy, that the rest of us should trust an omniscient government to watch over us constantly and use its knowledge about our once private behaviors and beliefs justly, wisely, for our own good. I suspect that when people dismiss concerns about surveillance they're either blinded by ideology -- "all information is good information wanting to be free" -- conditioned by social media to devalue privacy, hampered by fear of terrorism and ignorance of the surveillance state's reach, or simply not thinking things through.
It's hard for me to imagine that the Weberati really believe that only criminals should care about privacy.
How else might we explain that, despite the rise of anti-government fervor, the public remains complacent about the proliferation of centralized, domestic intelligence agencies indiscriminately collecting and storing information and probably misinformation about us. Since 9/11, the federal government has funded over 70 "fusion centers" nationwide. They're supposed to focus on deterring terrorism; but, not surprisingly, they demonize dissent and subject ordinary Americans to more or less invisible and generally unregulated surveillance.
"Around the country, peaceful political organizations have been monitored and labeled as 'terrorist' groups,'" the ACLU of Massachusetts reports. "In Virginia, it was historically black colleges and universities. In Maryland, it was Amnesty International and an ardent death penalty coalition. In Missouri, it was Libertarian Party supporters. In California, environmental and labor union activism ended up in terrorism related databases." Law enforcement agents are monitoring and photographing people at public meetings, whether or not they have any reasonable basis for suspecting illegal activity. For aging veterans of mid-20th century civil rights and anti-war movements, it's déjà vu all over again, except that the government now has unprecedented technological power to obtain, aggregate, and store an unprecedented range of information about us.