Six minutes to midnight in the surveillance society…

By Martin Bosworth

As our own Sunfell excellently explained recently, our society is rapidly becoming one where your data shadow can chase you wherever you go. Where privacy is an illusion, where every thought, word, deed, and action you take can be catalogued and used to call you a terrorist sympathizer, deny you employment, shatter your reputation, or otherwise remind you that your life is no longer your own.

The ACLU’S Barry Steinhardt, director of the org’s Technology and Liberty program, believes that we’re still capable of turning back the clock on the surveillance society, and to that end, he is shepherding the Survelliance Society Clock program. The ACLU set up a conference call to discuss the program today, and I took part.

Rather than targeting specific privacy abuses such as RFID, Real ID, or the FISA reauthorization, the clock is designed to take a larger view of the fragility of privacy in American–and global–culture, and how easily we can lose it if we don’t fight for it every step of the way.

I asked Steinhardt how such a campaign would play in our attention-obssessed culture, where people are all too willing to share every graphic, gory, unflattering detail of their lives on their Facebook profiles. He pointed out that the key was control–that people can choose to share aspects of their lives or not to do so, but they get rightfully angry when the choice is taken from them. Data breaches, identity theft, and warrantless wiretapping programs–all of these are examples of not only losing your right to privacy, but having the right taken from you without your consent or the power to fight back.

Steinhardt also mentioned the recent egregious actions taken by National Intelligence Director Mitch McConnell, when he claimed that the new surveillance programs were responsible for catching the suspected terrorists in Germany–only to recant that statement a few days later. As Steinhardt said, “All this new technology hasn’t caught one single terrorist. Every time, it’s been good old-fashioned intelligence and police work.”

Privacy is one of those abstract concepts that’s hard to rally people around until they are faced with a direct threat to their lives and livelihoods as a result of its loss, but it’s one of the most important bulwarks of a free society, particularly in America, which was built on the belief that people don’t need to be in one another’s business without a good reason. The midnight of a surveillance society hasn’t fallen on us yet, but it’s damn close–and every time we willingly give up a right or freedom in the name of some amorphous boogeyman, that clock ticks just a bit closer to doomsday. Here’s hoping that the country picks up on the importance of stopping the surveillance clock before it’s too late.

4 comments on “Six minutes to midnight in the surveillance society…

  1. Couldn’t the ACLU have come up with something sexier than “Surveillance Society Clock”? The “Armageddon Clock” hits you in the gut in a way that “surveillance society” doesn’t.

    Of course, my wish for better rhetoric does nothing to change the fact that this is a big deal. I can’t help but wonder what the “perfect” state that the ACLU believes would be 12:01 AM (farthest from midnight), or even Noon, on that clock.

  2. I have to agree with Brian, Martin. Why not call it “The Big Brother” clock or “The Man Spying on You” clock? Or even the “Destroying Civil Liberty” clock.

    This is such an important issue – in the age of advertising it needs a way to cut through the jabber.

  3. Well, I think the problem is that it’s not an immediate threat like the old nuclear “doomsday clock” signified. It’s subtler, and therefore not as easy to translate on a visceral level. Mind you, it got both of you paying attention, so it can’t be all bad.

    Maybe the collective brainpower of S&R could be put to use thinking of a better slogan to pitch to the ACLU. :)

  4. Martin,

    Mitch McConnell is the senator from KY (the state, not the lube, ok). Mike McConnell is the DNI.

    As far as surveillance society, Britain already implemented closed circuit tvs a few years ago so now they can track vehicles.

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