Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
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Why Don't Americans Care?: A Distant Fear

-- By LeylaHadi - 09 May 2015

Distilling the Apathy

John Oliver in his popular late-night show ran a sequence regarding the NSA surveillance program, and interviewed Snowden to bring further attention to the issue. Interviews with pedestrians in NYC reflected the same lack of awareness or concern about Snowden's revelations that I have encountered this semester: for a pervading, invasive, arguably unconstitutional, top-secret program that affects almost every American, nobody wants to know about it, or really seems to care.

The underlying rationale behind this apathy stems from two deep-rooted ideas: that privacy is officially nonexistent in today's world, or that one's innocence will protect them from the invasions of privacy, or both. Even though citizens are aware that they are being watched and surveilled in some capacity, they think surveillance is harmless (as they are not committing crimes/are not terrorists), inevitable, necessary, or not so severe. These themes dwarf the overriding constitutional objections to a data surveillance system this expansive and unprejudiced, so much so that students at Columbia Law have a shameful understanding of our realities (including myself before this course), with only one professor speaking to the program’s existence and legalities.

By March, I thought disinterest in the program might change because Hollywood stepped in. Poitras won an Academy Award for "CitizenFour" and delivered a thought-provoking acceptance speech that I naively and excitedly thought would mobilize the country and the world to learn about the NSA program. For fellow Millennials, Hollywood, too, did not make a great impact.

Intelligent people have not been motivated to investigate the Snowden revelations out of their own accord (even by simply watching the documentary). Their understanding is either ensconced in one or all of the above-mentioned perceptions of data-mining, or their opinion of Snowden as a traitor shadows the importance of what he showed us. American culture speaks of "Big Brother" Orwellian surveillance institutions as science-fiction paranoia, or as inapposite to America, without feeling the need to consider the reality. I believe this status quo can change either with the occurrence of targeted breaches of citizens' sexual privacy, or when the true nature of GAFA's information-sharing with government creates real-life, tangible effects for the average citizen. Until then, the convenience of GAFA, the apathy towards "metadata", the naive trust that the constitution actively works to safeguard privacy rights from government intrusion, and the fear of terrorism will keep citizens complaisant and unwilling to inquire into Snowden's revelations.

Making the Fear Real

Sex

Oliver's exposť comedically contrasted the current "average" citizen's understanding of what Snowden achieved (which appeared obscenely uninformed) with their reactions to learning that NSA often comes across and shares people's "Dick Pics" (which was horror). I do not want to rely on a late-night HBO "news" show aiming for both humor and sensationalism as proof of this theory, but I do think there an important reality found in his piece: Americans adamantly care about sex, or more accurately, the regulation of sex.

Even in our class, one of the topics that created the most debate and provided the most emotionality to the arguments was in the discussion of revenge porn (particularly for the non-LLMs). Access to our personal, sexual lives is deemed entirely unacceptable, unless it is in advancement of hunting down those labeled sexually perverse in a macro form of sex regulation. Porn, prostitution, to an increasingly less-so extent homosexuality - we know sexually related actions are ubiquitous, but they must remain behind closed doors, and they definitely are not guaranteed protections if citizens choose to publicly flaunt their sexual preferences/deviances. When naked pictures that "have an expectation of privacy" make their way to the public's eyes, the public is both horrified and fascinated.

The tone of the data surveillance discussion needs to shift to encompass what Americans hold dearly private. People believe that if they are not committing crimes, the government's acquisition of their information is irrelevant. The public needs to hear that (a) actual individuals (including analysts with no prior authorization) have access to private information, not just some impersonal machine that sifts through their data to drive home the reality that actual people know your business and (b) that NSA is not just looking for words like "bomb" in your text messages, but can actually view (and share) your private (nude) pictures via cellphone, email, live Skype calls, and other social media communications that most users would not even imagine are being infiltrated. Actual people will know who you flirt with, date, have sex with, who you are cheating on and who you are cheating with, what odd sexual preferences you may have. This will change the perception that NSA either targets criminal/terrorist activity, or that it conducts general searches without any inquiry into the specificities of a person's life unless they see a red flag. Instead of using impersonal words like "metadata" that means little to the average citizen, the narrative should focus on the information gathering of what Americans hold most dearly private: sex.

Actual, Personal Repercussions

All we actively experience as a result of data surveillance is more ads based on websites we have viewed, a trivial annoyance. The breakdown of internet privacy rights has not had its mobilizing Ferguson moment. Wikileaks is far too removed from our personal everyday lives. Snowden, while many hoped and still hope will be the face of an internet privacy revolution, appears to have not been, again because there was no personally-felt effect or repercussion for the program on the average American. Millennials have not actually experienced an injustice to their rights that is large enough but specific enough to them individually to create outrage. But this will happen soon. Whether AppleWatch? decides to sell information from its extensive medical tracking capabilities to insurance companies which then deny you coverage or reimbursement based on that information, or Google providing prospect government employers with information about one's not-so-dignified extracurricular activities -- when realities of data-mining get simultaneously scarier and more personal, beyond advertising effects, we will see an end to apathy.


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r6 - 29 Jun 2015 - 15:26:46 - MarkDrake
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