from the the-pain-of-being-watched dept
A few months ago, after the NSA spying stories first broke, we wrote about a bit from This American Life where the host, Ira Glass, was interviewing lawyers for prisoners detained at Guantanamo, about the impact of knowing that the government was listening in on every single phone call you made. The responses were chilling. The people talked about how it stopped them from being emotional with their children or other close friends and relatives. How they had trouble functioning in ways that many people take for granted, just because the mental stress of knowing that you have absolutely no privacy is incredibly burdensome. PJ, the dynamo behind Groklaw, has written a powerful piece explaining the similar feeling she’s getting from all the revelations about government surveillance, in particular the shutting down of Lavabit by Ladar Levison, and his suggestion that if people knew what he knew about email, they wouldn’t use it.
Because of this, she’s shutting down Groklaw.
You really need to read the entire piece, but it clearly lays out the sort of mental anguish that you get with the realization that what you thought was private and personal, might not be any more. She compares it to the feeling of having her apartment robbed, and the creepy feeling you get that some stranger was riffing through all of your personal belongings. And, from there, she riffs on the importance of privacy and intimacy, and how the totalitarian state takes those things away, quoting a powerful passage from Janna Malamud Smith’s book Private Matters. You should go read the full quotes, but it notes the psychological impact of not having privacy.
And that’s how PJ feels right now. The fact that the NSA is collecting all emails in or out of the US, as well as all encrypted messages, means that it’s impossible to have that privacy and intimacy that she feels is necessary to run the site:
There is now no shield from forced exposure. Nothing in that parenthetical thought list is terrorism-related, but no one can feel protected enough from forced exposure any more to say anything the least bit like that to anyone in an email, particularly from the US out or to the US in, but really anywhere. You don’t expect a stranger to read your private communications to a friend. And once you know they can, what is there to say? Constricted and distracted. That’s it exactly. That’s how I feel.
So. There we are. The foundation of Groklaw is over. I can’t do Groklaw without your input. I was never exaggerating about that when we won awards. It really was a collaborative effort, and there is now no private way, evidently, to collaborate.
I’m really sorry that it’s so. I loved doing Groklaw, and I believe we really made a significant contribution. But even that turns out to be less than we thought, or less than I hoped for, anyway. My hope was always to show you that there is beauty and safety in the rule of law, that civilization actually depends on it. How quaint.
What amazes me in all of these discussions concerning the defenders of such surveillance is that they never even seem able to comprehend the psychological impact of what all of this does. The way people change their behavior when they’re being watched constantly, and what that can do to a person.
The fallout from all of this NSA surveillance will take a very, very long time to measure, but it will be profound. The government, again, has put so much emphasis on the “benefit” of preventing an exceptionally low probability event, that it barely even considers the massive costs on everyone else. PJ isn’t shutting down Groklaw for the same reasons as Lavabit shut down. But it is the same root cause. The power of a surveillance state to spin out of control has wide-reaching consequences. It’s difficult to see how anyone can claim it’s worth the costs.
My personal decision is to get off of the Internet to the degree it’s possible. I’m just an ordinary person. But I really know, after all my research and some serious thinking things through, that I can’t stay online personally without losing my humanness, now that I know that ensuring privacy online is impossible. I find myself unable to write. I’ve always been a private person. That’s why I never wanted to be a celebrity and why I fought hard to maintain both my privacy and yours.
Oddly, if everyone did that, leap off the Internet, the world’s economy would collapse, I suppose. I can’t really hope for that. But for me, the Internet is over.
So this is the last Groklaw article. I won’t turn on comments. Thank you for all you’ve done. I will never forget you and our work together. I hope you’ll remember me too. I’m sorry I can’t overcome these feelings, but I yam what I yam, and I tried, but I can’t.
I find this deeply upsetting on many levels, not the least of which is that Groklaw is a needless casualty in a stupid power struggle among weak-minded, power hungry government officials who don’t even seem to comprehend what a mess they’ve created.
Filed Under: email, groklaw, intimacy, nsa, nsa surveillance, pj, privacy, stress, surveillance