Monday, March 16, 2015

On caring about surveillance


I have little patience for the argument that people don’t care about mass surveillance because they live in a state of trusting apathy. It strikes me as a moralistic stance that fails to take into account how complex the problem is, the layers of secrecy and obfuscation that surround it and – most importantly – how removed from our everyday experience and capacity for political intervention the forces that wield this power are.


In New Zealand, we know that the country has been a member of Five Eyes through successive governments, left and right, always doing what was asked of us by far more powerful allies. Thus the act of exercising one’s voting franchise against the current government at the last election wouldn’t have radically shifted the problem. Besides, voting is a blunt instrument, as each party represents a wider range of positions than a stance on surveillance alone. The question then becomes not just if you care but if you care enough to make the issue the principal consideration behind your voting choice. (The same applies to dirty politics: maybe it’s not that people didn’t care: it’s that not enough people cared enough, or weren’t presented with an alternative that invested their vote with the possibility of change.)

From the point of view of political action, campaigning about such issues almost always entails a convergence of strategy and tactics. It is through the form that the struggle takes – think the Springbok Tour protests – that the demand for people to make a stand is articulated and the means of making a stand is provided. Conversely, absent an organised political movement, how can we even tell if people care?

We’re nowhere near organised enough yet. And because we’re not, the field is left to the actors who have turned not caring into their banner. Like the guffawing and pretend-snoring Mike Hosking and the rest of the happy crew at Newstalk ZB, as documented this week by Media Watch. Or the New Zealand Listener, in an editorial charging Nicky Hager with trying either to influence a by-election in Northland or to profit from it, and arguing that we spy on our Pacific neighbours for their own good. Or Martin Van Beynen, who actually starts his opinion piece in Saturday’s The Press with the words ‘I know I should care’, and concludes a ramble on why the latest revelations don’t perturb him with the following thought:
I hardly ever go to the theatre or the orchestra but I think it's healthy we have them. In the same way the Hagers of this world serve a valuable end.
Thus investigative journalism on matters that are fundamental to the functioning of our democracy is reduced to the status of a cultural pastime by someone who doesn’t care much for culture anyway. Merry Christmas.

Occasionally, however, a shaft of light shines through a crack you didn’t know existed. Thus it happened that the otherwise exuberantly authoritarian David Farrar wrote a brief post on Kiwiblog about Customs applying for the right to force people they don't like the look of to disclose passwords for their electronic devices. The post, entitled Just no, reads as follows:
No, no and no.
This concise editorial opinion was followed by a small sample of the seething humanity that frequents Kiwiblog, all variously echoing their thought leader amidst cries of “no!” and lamentations on the loss of personal and business liberty. A couple of wry contributors did venture to ask what happened to the maxim ‘those who have nothing to hide, have nothing to fear’ so dear to the Right, but just two comments out of 59 actually expressed approval for the measure. This one:
I would feel comfortable giving my password to customs. All our emails, texts etc are trawled through by various governments to protect us from terrorists. I don’t think it is unreasonable to require people give access to their devices when they travel to check that they do not have any photos of child porn or plans of weapons of mass destruction.
And this one:
If something like this means that even one child abuser or scammer is identified and stopped then so be it. I don’t particularly want to hand over my email password at the border but I don’t have anything to hide either.
Despairing as they may read, these are the only comments featuring consistency or logic, as measured against the trust that Farrar and his readers have always pledged to the institutions ostensibly in charge of our national security.

The only thing that distinguishes a Customs officer going through the contents of your electronic device from one our spies – or, for the more credulous, an allied agency – doing the same, is that the Customs officer does it in front of you and you can see what they’re actually doing. In this respect, having one’s device searched at the border is merely a dramatisation of the interception that goes on all the time in a less personal but also much more efficient fashion, linking your communications with the communications of everybody else in search of patterns of thought and behaviour.

For once, then, the comments to Kiwiblog are interesting and relevant. Not only because they feature the immortal phrase ‘cultural Marxism has turned us into a nation of consumers and shoppers,’ but because in the jumble of untenable statements we might find contradictions to be exploited and spaces to occupy for political intervention.

Far from being indifferent, I believe that many if not most people, like Martin Van Beynen, know they should care – they’re just not sure how. 

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