When I was interviewing for a job at a large educational institution in South Korea, the Korean American administrator who interviewed me tried to sell the place by bragging that they had cameras in every classroom and every office. Cameras in my classroom? I didn’t feel this was a major selling point, for some reason. I mentioned that most American teachers wouldn’t feel comfortable with this arrangement, but he told me that the Americans working there had no problems with it. So I shrugged it off as a personal problem on my part.
However, when I began working there, I noticed that cameras were everywhere except for the office where the American teachers worked. Apparently, they had rebelled against the idea of being monitored while they were doing their jobs or idly chatting among themselves. We soon learned where the ‘dark spots’ were when we wanted to discuss something in private. These were often in storerooms. We also learned where the monitoring took place. Sadly, one place that could monitor any classroom at will was the office housing Korean teachers and Korean staff members. Any administrator could monitor any camera at any time. We had seen our emails being monitored as well. We learned to adjust to living in this microcosm of a surveillance society, but we weren’t happy about it.
According to most surveys, Americans are evenly divided on their ideas about government surveillance. The government’s position is that they need surveillance to protect Americans against terrorist attacks and, when these attacks occur, Americans tend to agree with them. Over time, Americans have accepted the fact that their communications are being monitored. In a Pew survey conducted in September, 70% of Americans believed that their calls and emails were being monitored; however, a Reuters survey conducted earlier in the year found that “75 percent of adults said they would not let investigators tap into their Internet activity to help the U.S. combat domestic terrorism.” So, like the Americans I worked with in South Korea, they realized their actions were being monitored but they didn’t like it. And this leads us to the most interesting of all statistics.
A remarkable 85% of Americans questioned in a recent Rasmussen survey said that freedom of speech was more important to them than being politically correct. Yet, only 28% believe that they have true freedom of speech, as 66% feel they must be careful about getting into trouble by saying something that is politically incorrect. This produces the sort of self-monitoring that I saw among my American colleagues in Korea when we knew cameras were nearby.
So, to put these statistics in perspective, freedom of speech seems to exist as an unattained ideal. Americans feel they are under surveillance by the government so they, in turn, must either monitor their online activity or take some precautions to prevent the government from gaining easy access to what they say or do. These precautions could be anything from using VPNs, using the Tor browser, or using encrypted email. In fact, 65% of Americans now use VPNs. But will VPNs be allowed in the future?
Across the globe, countries have been censoring more internet activities over time, as can be seen in the image below.
Add to this China’s recent ban on Skype and their imposition of more controls on Chinese-based social media sites, Baidu, Tencent, and Weibo. In addition, Russia plans to ban Facebook in 2018. Will other countries consider banning Tor or VPNs? We can’t be sure, but this is certainly the trend if government surveillance begins to triumph over personal privacy.
Occasionally, you see a U.S. reporter traveling to North Korea or China and asking some befuddled local what they think of a certain government policy. Do they really believe that these people will say what they honestly think, even if they are completely against the policy? If they did, it would be the last time they would be seen in public. That’s what surveillance descends into: surveillance leads to fear, which leads to self-monitoring, which leads to a loss of free speech. If the government prosecutes those who say things they do not like, under whatever pretext, oppression begins. Oppression leads to reluctant obedience. At some point, people fear they cannot express their true beliefs because of either implicit or explicit ramifications. When the government retains the right to re-brand free speech as subversive or hate speech, they risk becoming despotic.
According to Privacy International, “mass surveillance is the subjection of a population or significant component of a group to indiscriminate monitoring. It involves a systematic interference with people’s right to privacy. Any system that generates and collects data on individuals without attempting to limit the dataset to well-defined targeted individuals is a form of mass surveillance.” Yet, within the confines of mass surveillance, freedom of the press can still exist, at least in principle. In 2002, according to the Reporters Without Borders website, the U.S. ranked 17th in press freedom. This year, 2017, the U.S. has fallen to 43rd place, just below Burkina Faso and just ahead of Romania. No prizes for guessing who’s on the bottom of the list of 180 countries.
There is probably little appreciable difference between the amount of surveillance in China and the U.S. The real difference is to how that surveillance is used. Chinese surveillance is used to control individual behavior (enforced obedience) while U.S. surveillance, at least for the most part, is used to monitor individual behavior. The problem is that the boundary between these two uses is somewhat diffuse and often overlaps. Are there sites you could visit that would trigger an alarm that would lead to physical intervention from government agencies? I would think that was highly likely.
Edward Snowden’s exposure of the PRISM surveillance system and the recent leak of the NSA’s Ragtime program which uses cell phone service providers to monitor the activities of American citizens, only serve to point out the slippery slope we are on. Defenders of surveillance will point out that, though Americans are guaranteed the right of free speech, they do not, constitutionally, have the right to privacy. It is in this gray area that the battle is being fought.
And that battle will take place in Congress very soon when Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act comes up for continuation and revision. It will, if not acted on, expire on December 31st. In short, this bill will continue current surveillance activities until 2025 and may add an amendment that intelligence agencies can search through American conversations in search of ‘foreign intelligence information’ without the need for a warrant; something which is currently required. It is also feared that this bill could be linked to other important bills to guarantee it will be passed. For example, it could be linked to the budget bill wherein failing to agree to the new surveillance act could lead to a government shut down. It is through such cunning bureaucratic maneuvers that a surveillance state becomes an obedience state.
The slope is getting more and more slippery and this may very well be the last chance the American public has to decide what sort of future it wants to live in. The Washington Post analyzed the files released by Edward Snowden and found that “nearly half of the surveillance files, a strikingly high proportion, contained names, e-mail addresses or other details that the NSA marked as belonging to U.S. citizens or residents.” These included, “many other files, described as useless by the analysts but nonetheless retained, have a startlingly intimate, even voyeuristic quality. They tell stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes.” You will likely not hear much about this bill in the mainstream media. Nonetheless, we will see if the 85% of Americans who say they strongly support free speech will be fairly represented.