Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Bringing the Right on Board

-- By WardBenson - 23 Mar 2009

Even though all Americans consider freedom and privacy to be fundamental to our way of life, many on the right instinctively oppose privacy and civil liberties organizations. However, given all of the threats to freedom and privacy posed by modern government and corporate surveillance, it is vital that both sides come together to forge a consensus on how the country will protect its citizens in the future. And, because so many on the right are ambivalent as to how or even whether they should demand greater protection from surveillance, it will fall to the left to begin the rapproachmal. Doing so will require a major change in messaging, but as a formerly conservative, instinctively pro-law enforcement American, I think I can help.

A Lost Cause

Corporate data-mining is a nonstarter. First, both the religious and libertarian wings of the Republican Party have too much faith in individual capacity and self-reliance to accept the underlying premise of those who fear data mining—that the heuristics all humans rely on make their reasoning skills inherently and irredeemably flawed, and thus open to manipulation by those who understand these limitations. Second, most conservatives are turned off by any attack on corporations and big business—the rich ones because they have a substantial pecuniary interest in them and the poor ones because they perceive liberals' attacks on business as reeking of privilege. Third, liberals' usual solution—regulation—directly conflicts with free market ideology, no matter how silly it may be to argue that people have sufficient information about which companies use data-mining to choose which to deal with. So, while important, corporate data-mining is unlikely to bother conservatives, and even bringing it up may be counterproductive.

Changing the Spy

Conservatives distrust privacy and civil liberties groups because they view them as primarily concerned with defending terrorists and criminals—individuals whom many conservatives believe should have as few rights as possible. Thus, when courting the right, privacy advocates must focus on threats to the privacy of those who see themselves as upright, law-abiding citizens. So, while the NSA, CIA and FBI may the most prolific practitioners of surveillance, presenting them as the primary threat will not work. Most Americans have never heard of the NSA, and the FBI and CIA are only associated with types of criminal activity with which most Americans never see themselves being even remotely involved. Moreover, in spite of the last eight years, many still respect these organizations and view their agents as conscientious and professional. Thus, we must focus on the law enforcement agencies Americans are familiar with and which they know are interested in their activities and are sometimes corrupt. Simply put, we must make the image of the man reading our email not Elliot Ness, but Police Chief Wiggum.

How to do this? First, if privacy advocates insist on focusing on surveillance itself, they must highlight surveillance of activities which most Americans can see themselves participating in. NSA surveillance of journalists pursuing stories about terrorism, for example, is ineffective because few Americans do this and most conservatives are suspicious of them anyways. While mundane, what will work are stories of local police trawling Facebook looking for underage drinking, drug use, and romantic relationships that appear a bit too transactional in nature. Second, and more promising, is to focus not on the spying itself, which many Americans don't care about or will not oppose for fear of being suspected of illegal behavior, but instead to focus on blatant abuses of spying powers. The NSA eavesdropping on phone sex between soldiers in Iraq and their spouses stateside is the kind of travesty privacy advocates need to learn to exploit. Most people have had an intimate phone conversation they would not have wanted to share with a cop, and so while it may not seem as noble as defending a free press, the most effective question to ask Americans may be: “Are you the only one getting off to your phone sex?”

A More Palatable Threat

Many conservatives will still simply refuse to fear police surveillance because it will require holding beliefs about law enforcement that they find unpatriotic, disrespectful, and ungrateful. A much better threat to emphasize is the one most of them will have no qualms about being deeply afraid and suspicious of—their own employer. While it's hard for many to imagine the CIA or Google bothering to monitor their activities, few will have difficultly accepting that their own company might be spying on them. This is why the recent scandals at Deutsche Bahn, Deutsche Telekom, and Lidl are the kind that will resonate with most Americans. The DB case is useful for two reasons. First is the scale of the operation. When companies are surveiling 70% of their workforce, workers can no longer tell themselves that they won't be monitored because they don't do anything suspicious. Second is the fact that it also targeted the relatives of employees. People aren't afraid of the CIA because, generally speaking, it's easy to avoid paling around with terrorists. However, it's much harder to avoid paling around with people who have jobs.

A New Angle

Despite their distaste for anyone labeled as an advocate of civil liberties, there is one context in which many conservatives deeply care about such issues—gun ownership. Once guns enter the mix, conservatives generally lose their faith in law enforcement and become deeply suspicious of the government. Measures like proposed federal databases of gun owners and mandatory registration of all firearms have already sparked the ire of the NRA, and so as technological advances rapidly improve the government's ability to monitor weapons, it is likely that gun rights advocates will increasingly feel threatened. Thus, while an outright alliance between civil liberties and gun rights organizations is probably out of the question, privacy advocates should consider using gun ownership to illustrate the dangers of government surveillance and, in this way, reach an important demographic which otherwise would be unwilling to listen.

Ward, I liked your approach to this paper, but I would only point out that there is still one logical/rhetorical connection required that would probably be outside the grasp of the average American here. Namely, people do not perceive any governmental intrusion into or subpoena of the private communications until after the fact, and only then address that threat retroactively rather than prospectively. In the age after the end of forgetting, this poses a serious problem. People are happy to give away as much private data as possible to Facebook or Google (after all, "don't be evil" is "company policy") blithely unaware of the government's ease of obtaining such data (i.e., silver platters all around). This makes me suppose that the problem probably has to be attacked from the "giving" side, rather than the "reading" side of the equation, but I was hoping to see if you thought differently.

-- RickSchwartz - 24 Mar 2009


  • I too think this is a very insightful and useful analysis. From my point of view its estimates of outcome are probably a little too pessimistic. You are entirely correct, from my point o view, in your description of the reasons why the issues of data-mining and commercial subversion of individual autonomy aren't articulated at present in ways the largest traditional constituencies of the Republican Party can get behind. But, as Richard Hofstadter first pointed out forty-five years ago, in his classic essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," the long history of movements in American political life based on fear of conspiratorial forces seeking to undermine the Republic is reflected on both left and right. In our time, the conservative movement in the US, beginning with the John Birch Society, has always been strongly paranoid. Of course it tended to lose its paranoia a little bit when in power, but Dick Cheney, with his top-secret biohazard suit following him everywhere, and Bob Barr are both representative of it. And of course the NRA.

  • The importance of the para-paranoid right as a force drawing the Republican Party towards concern with these issues (and on a constitutional basis of concern in particular) emphasizes what is also true in the Democratic Party: it's the "outside" edges of the Party, seen as both ideologically more radical and less "pragmatic" (or venal), than the "center," that moves the issues here. By emphasizing with skill and sensitivity the reasons why the pro-business center of the Republican Party will have to change the messaging around these issues to succeed in using them with its base is to set up another question: could the agitation of its conservative wing turn out to be a reason rather than an obstacle in the change?


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r4 - 05 Jan 2010 - 22:31:26 - IanSullivan
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