Missives From A Supermax:

Collective Privacy and the Anonymous Archipelago

The sea is rising and our remaining hills are few and far between. This is not a discussion of climate change despite its perils. This a discussion of the anonymous archipelago in the global sea of surveillance and our loss of collective privacy. While our individual privacy is in grave danger today, there are still countermeasures to protect our thoughts and words from hostile eyes and ears. It cannot listen to yet the voice in our heads nor can they follow everyone at all times. It cannot yet steal the ideas from our minds nor can they accurately predict our intentions short of our overt behavior. They do not yet have this power, but they will try. They will try because we have ceded to them our right to collective privacy.

Part One

Because privacy is not clearly defined in the US Constitution, it is a uniquely vulnerable right. While we as a society struggle to define and enshrine or limit individual privacy, we have already lost the battle to protect our rights as groups. Indeed we seldom consider the concept of collective privacy.

Let us consider it.

Ten individuals exercising their right to vote cannot be counted as nine. The government can’t go into a church, mosque or synagogue and limit attendance (infiltration of mosques aside) or deny some members the right to worship because of their number. So why should the ideas shared between two people or twenty be less protected than the ideas inside our own minds. Do our rights as a collective diminish as the collective increases?

The government will respond with the “reasonable expectation” argument for limiting privacy. This is a defensible position albeit subject to massive overreach as it applies to public protests or public forums. There is much less justification for surveillance of private spaces and forums short of compelling legal interests and a court order made transparent in a reasonable time frame. Unfortunately, some governments have habitually infiltrated private meetings and private dwellings without probable cause or reasonable suspicion.

The extant solution has been to meet in smaller groups or exercise greater caution with whom ideas are shared. It is precisely as our circle of confidants shrinks from a larger group down to a few then ultimately to ourselves that our concept of privacy and expectations thereof begin to break down. If it’s not okay to read my thoughts, is it okay to read my thoughts shared with a friend, with two friends, with ten? What is the critical mass in which ideas, some secretive, become necessary to surveil? If the government has arbitrarily decided, say that groups of ten or more meeting in secret need to be surveilled, what keeps them from arbitrarily reducing it to five, then two, then ultimately one? For it is the idea that is the singularity to be observed and acted upon if necessary and singularities by their very nature start small.

Embryonic ideas are vulnerable. They require a collective in which they can be expressed, debated, accepted, or denied; where they can diminish or grow. Some unpopular ideas require an additional shroud of privacy, a collective privacy, less they die or remain unformed. The government has five general arguments by which they attack this shroud no matter which idea it protects. These are: terrorism, national security, organized crime, child pornography, and intellectual property. These are (mostly) legitimate and societally accepted arguments. The problem we face is that some of the most dangerous ideas to the government and associated interests are political and do not fall into these accepted categories. In a traditionally totalitarian system, people are arrested and charged for political ideas. In a sham democracy, political “offenses” must be labeled under one of the socially acceptable categories. People sit in prison all the same.

Distastefully perhaps, unpopular political ideas as well as criminal evidence against the State must be protected by the same shroud that can also protect actual illicit behavior. We must maintain our collective privacy in spite of this, or Western civilization will cease to exist. In Les Miserables, Hugo describes his characters plotting in an upper room of a private establishment. The men were plotting positive change. Though a fictional story, Hugo was describing actual events. America’s constitutional republic would not exist without private rooms and spaces for conspirators against the British Crown. If King George had an informant among every group of plotters or had an NSA-like surveillance apparatus the revolution would have never occurred. Our loss of privacy has meant that we cannot challenge the State en masse — especially when the State violates its own Constitution. We are seeing this now.

The last bastion against a total loss of privacy is anonymity and it is through anonymity that we can restore collective privacy.

Part Two to follow (Anonymous Archipelago).


To learn more about Matt’s case, read author and journalist Adrian Humphreys’ award-winning National Post story, Hacker, Creeper, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Matt DeHart.

Want to help Matt? This defense fund has been established with the DeHart family’s approval.