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Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Case Against Broad Government Surveillance

For a while I thought I might be coming at the matter of government surveillance from a different perspective then a lot of people. I read comments from others who say they are a little concerned but they say they just always figure the government is listening in anyway.

I'm a product of the Vietnam generation and we came to learn that President Nixon had agents going to peace rallies and document participants. Of course their efforts were remedial by surveillance standards today but the fact is they kept file on people they considered a threat to this country because they exercised their constitutional right to assembly to protest our involvement in Vietnam. Think what he could have done with the technology available today? I'm relatively confident that Nixon was so paranoid of average Americans that he would be salivating over what the government is doing today to you and I.

I was both encouraged and discouraged by a PEN America survey of American writers that found 85% are worried about government surveillance and 73% have never been more worried about privacy rights and freedom of the press as they are today. The encouraging part is writers are paying attention. This is a good thing.  Of course the concern doesn't alleviate the erosion of privacy. And beside from the concern there is another down side... it is impacting how writers conduct themselves.

The PEN survey indicates the 28% or nearly a third have curtailed or avoided social media activities and another 12% have seriously considered doing the same, all because of the threat of surveillance. And nearly one quarter (24%) have deliberately  avoided certain topics in phone and email conversations. Another 9% have seriously considered this avenue.

One chilling effect this is having on writers is 16%  have avoided writing or speaking  about a particular topic. Another 11% seriously considered it.

The report goes on....

  • 16% refrained from conducting searches on the Internet or visiting websites on topics they consider controversial.
  • 13% have taken steps to disguise or cover their digital footprints. 
  • 3% have actually declined opportunities to meet in person or electronically with persons how might be deemed security threats by the government. 
In each of these instances there were measurable numbers who seriously considered taking these same drastic steps.

It troubles me that writers, be they journalists or or in the literary arts are finding themselves self-censoring over fear from our own government.

The 4th Amendment, freedom of the press is necessary to assure the survival of the republic against the kinds controls the brought to power fascist governments in Germany, the Soviet Union and China in years past. These are some of the same kinds of extremes we are seeing in many middle-eastern countries as well.

I am not convinced that a more secure America is one in which we are all under the watchful eyes of the government. That is an awesome power and one that can very easily lead to dangers in our democracy right here at home.

The press, the arts were all under watchful eyes in  Nazi Germany. The government controlled the flow of information and yes even the arts. Knowledge is a powerful freedom for people. The control of knowledge too is powerful but in subverts the liberties of people.
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