“…laws were most numerous when the commonwealth was most corrupt.”
—Tacitus, The Annals
“The government is best which governs least.”
—attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but likely from Henry David Thoreau
Although yesterday’s online protest against the NSA’s mass surveillance program was dubbed “The Day We Fight Back,” a closer look at the official press release for the event reveals that it was far narrower in scope than the surveillance regime that threatens the rights of privacy, association, and free speech worldwide. Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we believe journalism should focus on the difficult questions—not the easy ones—and a holistic analysis of the #TheDayWeFightBack suggests that mass surveillance won’t end anytime soon. While we stand in solidarity with those protesting the NSA’s surveillance programs (which clearly threaten 1st Amendment and 4th Amendment rights, among other things), we believe that any protest movement truly intent on ending mass surveillance must understand that (a) the issue encompasses far more than simply Internet or metadata surveillance and (b) Congressional action alone will not solve the problem. “The Day We Fight Back,” unfortunately, failed to recognize either of those principles.
By focusing almost exclusively on Internet/metadata surveillance, the organizers behind the protest omitted from consideration those methods of surveillance that do not rely upon our use of the Internet, including but not limited to: aerial surveillance of an entire city; next-generation video surveillance involving license-plate recognition software; and facial recognition surveillance. None of those methods require the government to track our metadata or online activities, but all of them pose a threat to our 1st and 4th Amendment rights just as much as Internet-based surveillance. “The federal government is making progress on developing a surveillance system,” The New York Times reported last August, “that would pair computers with video cameras to scan crowds and automatically identify people by their faces” (emphasis ours). Notice the surveillance tactic there does not require analysis of metadata but rather focuses on something far more fundamental: the contours of your face. The above-mentioned methods of surveillance, in fact, almost certainly impact more people than the metadata-surveillance because everyone walks around at one point or another in an open, public space—but not everyone uses the Internet (despite what the technologists may tell you).
Those who participated in “The Day We Fight Back” would do well to remember that those without an Internet connection were not included as part of “we.” The press release for the event made this clear. Brett Solomon, Executive Director of Access, is quoted as saying “a free and open internet is a critical prerequisite to preserving our free and open societies” (emphasis ours). David Segal, Executive Director of Demand Progress, speaks of the NSA’s surveillance as posing “the greatest threat to a free Internet, and broader free society” (emphasis ours). Josh Levy of Free Press stated that the programs “attack our basic rights to connect and communicate in private, and strike at the foundations of democracy itself” (emphasis ours). The quotes above reflect a fairly narrow perspective whereby “democracy,” a “free society,” and our ability to communicate are viewed as things that can only be achieved online. This is nonsense. While we understand internet connectivity and usage rates are proliferating worldwide, at no point in human history has the Internet been a “critical prerequisite” for anything—let alone a free society or a democracy or our ability to exchange ideas freely. Humans have been exchanging ideas and struggling for freedom since the Stone Age. And by focusing “The Day We Fight Back” on Internet-related surveillance, as opposed to surveillance in general, the protest’s organizers did not even consider the other surveillance methods outlined above that impact those who are unable to plug in and log out.
Speaking of which: who are those who cannot get online, who do not generate metadata for the NSA to trawl through, who do not have a Twitter account to add their voice to the “global conversation”? The answer is simple: the poor. Take a look at this report on American internet use from the U.S. Census Bureau, which illustrates in Table 3 that 35.6% of those earning under $25,000 per year have no internet connection whatsoever. By contrast, 51.8% of those earning more than $150,000 per year are connected to the Internet “at home and somewhere else from multiple devices.” Inequity between the internet-connected haves and have-nots is even larger when one looks at the issue globally. According to the World Bank, the most internet-connected countries in the world (i.e., the places in the world that generate the most metadata for the NSA to collect) are also the richest: countries with an internet connectivity rate above 80% include the U.S., Germany, Belgium, France, Germany, Korea, Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway. Those with low connectivity rates are among the world’s poorest: Sierra Leone (1.3%), Somalia (1.4%), Mali (2.2%), Afghanistan (5.5%), Iraq (7.1%), and Pakistan (10%). Put another way, NSA surveillance of internet-based activities impacts the Global North far more than it does the Global South. In other words, the richest people in the world’s richest countries are generating the lion’s share of the world’s metadata and internet activity. This social media map of Twitter from the Oxford Internet Institute, for example, clearly demonstrates that most Twitter users are from the Global North. The results here are obvious: those who have most to lose from NSA surveillance of internet-based activities are, relatively speaking, the world’s elite. Yesterday’s “The Day We Fight Back,” then, was apparently unconcerned with those who cannot access the internet as the protest was focused exclusively on internet-based surveillance.
In addition to espousing a closed-circuit conception of “we,” yesterday’s protest advocated an equally narrow conception of what it means to “fight back.” A cursory glance at the official protest website makes that clear: “fighting back” meant nothing more than calling or emailing a legislator in support of the USA Freedom Act (full text of Act here). Numerous reports already indicate that the present Congress is dysfunctional and can barely pass any legislation, let alone one on an issue as critical as the intersection between surveillance and 1st / 4th Amendment rights. The notion that “fighting back” should be reduced to contacting a legislator who at some indeterminate future date may support a (likely watered-down) final piece of legislation should strike even the most ardent NSA protestor as absurd, laughable, and ineffectual. Here at the FEW, we believe that expecting Congress to resolve the issue of NSA surveillance in an adequate manner is to wait for a dream deferred. Indeed, have we not been down this very road before where Congress investigates surveillance activities and then explores possible legislation? (Answer: yes). And even if the USA Freedom Act passed through the Congress and the Senate for President Obama’s signature (the same President Obama who presided over the expansion of these very surveillance programs to begin with, by the way), that still would leave the NSA and other federal agencies free to engage in surveillance practices that do not involve the use of metadata such as facial recognition and aerial surveillance technologies.
This piece should not be interpreted as an attack on the movement behind the protest. Our previous reporting on NSA-related issues demonstrates that we are staunchly against the current surveillance programs, and we are in alignment with the general proposition that NSA surveillance must “stop.” Unlike the protest organizers, however, we recognize that many in the world—particularly poor people and people countries—do not use the internet and do not produce nearly as much metadata as the Global North. The rights of association, speech, and privacy for those who do not have Internet access matter as well. In short, we should fight against those methods of surveillance that infringe upon all of our rights—not just those of us who are constantly plugged-in to the Internet—and we should recognize that waiting for Congress to solve the issue is not so much fighting back as giving up.