Surveillance Isn’t About Watching

It’s about violence, or the threat of violence

On April 12, 2017, I sat on a panel about government surveillance at a Privacy Symposium organized by Harvard Law School. Text of my prepared remarks follows.

So as the journalist on this panel, I feel it’s my responsibility to talk about surveillance as it affects journalism and freedom of the press.

So let’s talk about journalism. What is journalism? How do we define the activity of journalism?

Journalism is publishing what someone else doesn’t want published. Everything else is public relations.

George Orwell.

The fundamental essence of journalism is an adversarial relationship with the powerful.

So what happens when new technologies make it possible for the someone else — someone powerful — to prevent that something from being published?

Let’s talk about freedom of the press.

I hate this phrase. What is wrong with “freedom of the press”?

The printing press is obsolete.

Arguing about freedom of the press today is like arguing about traffic law for horse and buggy. An interesting academic exercise. Maybe if you’re Amish.

The enemies of democracy will happily grant you the right to press ink to paper, if you cede them complete, totalitarian control of the internet.

Because that’s what’s at stake here. Freedom of the internet.

So now we come to the subject of our discussion today: surveillance.

Surveillance. A fancy Frenchy word that glances off our English brains.

What is “surveillance”? What does this word even mean?

Surveillance does not mean watching. Nothing could be further than the truth.

Surveillance means violence, or the threat of violence.

In meatspace, when the secret police stalk a journalist in the street, they are not “investigating” or “gathering intelligence.” They are sending a message:

Conform. Obey. Be silent. Or else.

In the cyber domain, when the secret police engage in mass surveillance of entire nations, of billions of people, they are sending a message:

Conform. Obey. Be silent. Or else.

Surveillance is a fancy word for secret policing. It does not mean watching. Surveillance means the threat of violence, or violence itself.

We don’t like your journalism. So we’re going to blackmail you. Or frame you. Or selectively prosecute you for one of the three felonies you commit every day. Or maybe we’ll gaslight you. Hack your “smart home.” Hack your car. Your pacemaker.

Conform. Obey. Be silent. Or else.

Mass surveillance and targeted hacking disrupt democracy and concentrate power in the hands of the secret police, rendering our Constitution obsolete.

Technology writes constitutional law. The printing press and the personal firearm made our republic possible. But the printing press and personal firearm are obsolete, replaced by far more powerful technologies.

Our Constitution described a balance of power between the people and the state at the time of its drafting. But that balance of power has shifted, drastically.

How would I describe the de facto constitution of America today?

Government surveillance sentences you and me and everyone in this room, the entire human race, to indefinite detention in an open-air prison. Without charge, without trial, without chance of appeal, without even benefit of counsel, surveillance robs us not only of our privacy, our dignity, and our humanity — but of our political liberty.

We are witnessing the birth of a new form of government, never before seen on earth: computer-automated totalitarian dictatorship by the secret police.

Edward Snowden warned us in 2013 of “turnkey tyranny.”

Today that key is being turned.

Journalists are the last line of defense. We must, in the words of President John F. Kennedy, splinter the intelligence community into a thousand pieces and scatter them to the winds.

The alternative?

Conform. Obey. Be Silent.

Or else.

Bruce Schneier, who sat next to me on the panel, forwarded me this research into surveillance of female journalists in Pakistan. The interviewed journalists also felt surveillance as a form of intimidation.

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