Wednesday, July 27, 2016

(The Big Disrupt) Mass Surveillance: Why the golden age of surveillance is set to continue no matter who wins in November

If there has ever been an election that has vindicated the concerns and criticisms of every thinker from Plato onwards about democracy, it would be this one fought by Hillary and Donald Trump. 

Both candidates are highly divisive figures in the public eye and even more so in their own parties as Clinton is seen as a figurehead of the democratic party establishment by its liberal base and Trump draws the ire of his own party's establishment as the billionaire revels in his outsider status. 

Trump eerily mirrors a character Plato describes that could turn a democracy into a tyrannical state and seems to provide a terrifyingly accurate characterization of much of his support who are largely voting for the man rather than his policies which, so far, have not been articulated at any length beyond the phrases "build a wall", "were gonna win again and win big", and last but not least "make America great again". 

While Clinton is a far cry from Plato's conception of who should rule, she is by far the most accomplished of the two as a former senator and secretary of state, a quality Plato would approve. The thought of Plato can provide insights today but his great mind unfortunately doesn't provide into a slightly more complex issue over who should lead, privacy. 

We would have look to more contemporary thinkers with minds no less gifted than Plato's but, on the whole, the thoughts of great minds so matter little in an age where our relationship to privacy is ephemeral at best, easy to deny, and ceded almost reflexively. In an age like this, is it a surprise that possibly the most hawkish proponents of mass surveillance our vying for the highest office? 

Our relationship to privacy however has been hampered severely by a spike in terrorist attacks kicked off by the harrowing 9/11 attacks which swung the balance between security and liberty firmly in the favour of the former. To this day, leaders still make fear based arguments when arguing about impinging our right privacy and with the recent spate of attacks across the globe, these arguments have intensified and have largely helped to set the poisonous tone and mood surrounding this election cycle.       

Both Clinton and Trump have been strident to say the least about their intentions to  continue mass surveillance programs should they become president especially in response to terrorist attacks. 

In response to the Brussels attacks, Clinton expressed in an CNN interview that to avoid similar attacks happening in the U.S., there would be the need to increase surveillance capabilities as well as a greater police presence  on the ground. While these may seem like common sense proposal in the face of an attack, Clinton's prescription seems glaze over the fact that mass surveillance is at an all time high and yet attacks are happening at a greater level of frequency. 

Trump, on the other hand, has taken his desire to surveill U.S citizens to a level that has drawn criticism. Back in November, Trump voiced his desire at a rally to track Muslims and surveillance on mosques  and also to build a database on members of the faith which has drawn unfavorable comparisons by opponents to what Nazis did to Jews.   

Trump also publicly stated that he lands firmly on the side of security in the classic liberty v security debate and while Clinton hasn't made statements as strong as Trump's regarding where she stands on the debate, it's quite clear where they stand. Why they favor security over privacy could be simply because the security argument is more convincing. A more complex reflection might be to consider the rather fleeting relationship both Trump and Clinton have with privacy. Both Clinton and Trump have been in the public eye for decades and have had everything from their personality, dress hairstyles, pitch, parenting skills and business and political failures scrutinized and laid bare for all to see.  

With this mind, it would seem common sense to presume that both candidates would value highly what much of their adult lives have lacked and would seek to preserve as much as they could for their fellow citizens. However, it seemed their experience has taught them that privacy is the most abstract constitutional right of them all, so abstract it may not exist at all. 

It would be hard to blame two very public figures to subscribe to the "privacy is dead argument" which  gained currency in  post 9/11 and has become a mainstream point of view since the Snowden leaks. Their complicated relationship to privacy can also explain why Donald Trump wished he could have voted for the controversial patriot act and Hiliary Clinton voted for it twice. 

In any case, Clinton's and Trump's relationship with privacy may not matter as it would prove rather difficult for any president to roll back the unprecedented level of surveillance since whether they're favour the fourth amendment or not. Any president willing to take on powerful agencies such as NSA, CIA and FBI would have to display a level of political courage that's scarce  in today's political class, never mind Clinton or Trump. 

In sum, whatever happens in November, you can expect from at least then to the next presidential election cycle that you're privacy is no less private than it was before as two very polarizing figures with a complicated relationship with privacy are look set complicate our relationship to privacy as much as decades in the public eye has theirs. 


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