Creating Chilling Effects On Speech Is A Feature, Not A Bug, Of The Surveillance State

from the shut-up-you-people,-we're-protecting-you dept

We've discussed a few times how the pervasive surveillance efforts of the NSA and others have tremendous chilling effects on how people communicate and how they act. We've discussed how this is a "cost" to the program that not many, especially those who are backing these programs, seem interested in measuring or even thinking about. Of course, implicit in our assumption is that these "costs" are things that are negatives of the program. Others would point out that for those in power, that's not so much a cost as a benefit. It's not a bug or an unintended consequence, but a feature. Chilling speech and clamping down on communications? Why that's a good thing for those in power.

Josh Levy, from Free Press, has a great guest post over at Boing Boing where he discusses how the NSA's surveillance regime is a huge attack on free speech, and how this is both inevitable, and for some, the intent of the program:

The chilling of free speech isn’t just a consequence of surveillance. It’s also a motive. We adopt the art of self-censorship, closing down blogs, watching what we say on Facebook, forgoing “private” email for fear that any errant word may come back to haunt us in one, five or fifteen 15 years. “The mind's tendency to still feel observed when alone... can be inhibiting,” writes Janna Malamud Smith. Indeed.

Peggy Noonan, describing a conversation with longtime civil liberties advocate Nat Hentoff, writes that “the inevitable end of surveillance is self-censorship.”

Hentoff stressed that privacy invasions of this magnitude are “attempts to try to change who we are as Americans.” In fact, they are attempts to define who we are as human beings.

Meanwhile, over at the Atlantic, Bruce Schneier has a post discussing the detainment of David Miranda, where he comes to similar conclusions, that these authoritarian police states clearly have no practical benefit, except to enable a powerful government to show off its power to invade your lives:
This leaves one last possible explanation -- those in power were angry and impulsively acted on that anger. They're lashing out: sending a message and demonstrating that they're not to be messed with -- that the normal rules of polite conduct don't apply to people who screw with them. That's probably the scariest explanation of all. Both the U.S. and U.K. intelligence apparatuses have enormous money and power, and they have already demonstrated that they are willing to ignore their own laws. Once they start wielding that power unthinkingly, it could get really bad for everyone.
Of course, Schneier sees some upside to this in the long run -- which is that such blatantly ridiculous activity seems to only embolden others to push back on this trampling of our rights. Hopefully, that pushback works, because the alternative is horrifying to those who believe in a free and open society.

Filed Under: chilling effects, free speech, nsa, nsa surveillance


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  1. identicon
    hobos, 19 Apr 2014 @ 3:18pm

    The chilling effects are both direct and indirect. The direct method is, naturally, the implied threat. The indirect method comes about as a result of the fact that surveillance is also theft. Writers are easily damaged by surveillance. Surveillance is an easy word, one that is much too easy and much too soft to really define what is happening.  A writer can very effectively be silenced/censored by simple surveillance.  The reason? Surveillance becomes, automatically and by definition, theft.  Envision a situation where a writer's work is "surveilled" (read, stolen).  Those who have purloined the works of that writer are then in a position to mark the works as theirs (since many writers keep their works secret during its production).  The takers of the writer's work simply register it as theirs, using some governmental mechansim for copyright or a non-governmental third party escrow service.  Later the original author is censored under some vague "copyright" takedown mechanism such as what is currently used frequently in the U.S. and elsewhere.  In most cases, this can be done without so much as a notification to the *real* author.  This is an ongoing, quickly accelerating concern.  A number of very famous novelists have been bitten by this situation. They were popular enough for their complaints to be heard. Lesser knowns are simply never heard from.

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