Surveillance Canada

Do you suppose this definition is under surveillance? You can bet your sweet patootie it is.

The mid-June 2013 “revelations” and subsequent uproar about major information gathering programs by the American National Security Agency (NSA) has reopened a debate about privacy, spying, state secrets, and surveillance. Almost every aspect of the discussion is contested (e.g., the word “revelations” above is in quotes because there’s an argument about whether something new has been revealed or whether it’s all just “old news”). That means this is one of the murkier of public debates currently underway.

Big-Brother-iFacebookStart with the recent cultural shredding of privacy. For younger people, there’s a relentless abandonment of privacy taking place on Facebook and countless other “social media” sites, including an astonishing number of web cam masturbation postings by young folks that inevitably end up on your local/global porn site. At another level of the disappearance of privacy, the social media sites are collecting every bit of data produced by their “users” and then “mining” the data to sell commercial products to those customers. Sometimes this produces the irony of people who don’t seem to mind being data-mined by social media corporations who are outraged when governments do the same thing in the name of national security, usually under the banner of preventing “terrorism.”

The matter is further confused by general ambivalence about states, government, and societies, as well as by clashing political positions on the role of the state. On one side, you have an ideological devotion to “transparency,” usually coupled to an anarchist distrust of all government, which completely rejects the notion of a legitimate state secret (presumably including encryption systems to protect privacy and pieces of knowledge.)

On another side, you have leftists suspicious of any and all actions of the United States as purely imperialist policies designed to subordinate all other polities on the globe. Since all U.S. actions are malevolent, all revelations of secret U.S. policies are heroic, according to this view.

Big brother is notOn a third side, you have people who assure us that nothing at all is happening, that the vast spying programs are already well-known, completely lawful, and that the “leakers” of secrets deserve to be subjected to ad hominem attacks for being creepy, paranoid, etc. These views are regularly found in the pages of the conservative National Post and Ottawa Citizen. On the even further right, there are wilder conspiracy theories from the ranks of the demagogues of talk radio and TV.

Hmm. Try to think amid all this noise. Oddly, the most moderate position in the surveillance debate is proposed by U.S. President Barack Obama, who talks about a need for “balance” between necessary national security snooping and valued rights to privacy and freedom. Naturally, Obama’s middle-of-the-road pragmatism is the most unpopular position on offer, especially among mobs of screamers.

True, Obama’s position doesn’t quite recognize the vastness and depth of the surveillance programs, and how dangerous they are to a common sense notion of civil liberties. But, then, everyone else is slightly worse — from worshippers at the shrine of transparency, to libertarians and anarchists who don’t want much of a state at all, to self-declared revolutionaries, on the left and right, secularist and Islamist, who see only U.S. imperialism while remaining cheerfully untroubled by equivalent Chinese and Russian snoopings or the absence of freedom among the warlord and theocratic failed states.


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