Saturday, February 16, 2013

On the Canard, "I've Got Nothing to Hide"

Suppose that this country is gradually becoming a surveillance state. I won’t use this space to make that argument. But if this country were moving in that direction, should we worry? And how worried should we be?
Some people may not be too alarmed by the fact because, after all, the events of 9-11 showed that there are terrorists conspiring to do harm to the United States, and one of their strongest advantages is secrecy. And many Americans espouse the view “I’ve got nothing to hide.” These are reasonable positions to hold.
Enjoy your Flight
How is one to refute these points without relying on rhetorical turns that have been so heavily used as to lose their impact? Can a counterargument be made without invoking the names “George Orwell,” “Big Brother,” or “Joe McCarthy”? Can I complete this essay without making any further reference to witch hunts? That is the challenge I have set myself.
I will begin with a quote attributed to Cardinal Richelieu: “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him. Now, this quote is evocative and witty, but what does it mean in concrete terms? There is an implication that a Machiavellian individual – and the Cardinal certainly fit that description – may desire to coerce or do harm. And by exposing even an honest man’s secrets, coercion and harm can be done.
As Bernard Knox observed, there was a time when one could come under suspicion for being a premature anti-fascist. How is such a thing possible?  “Could there be anything such as a premature antidote to a poison? A premature antiseptic? A premature antitoxin?” Knox proceeds to explain. The term “premature anti-fascist” was invented by the FBI, and it was a code for “suspected communist.” Long before the people of Great Britain and the United States recognized the truth about Adolf Hitler, there were a few avant-garde or ahead of the curve anti-fascists who also happened to be (in many cases) communists (source).
Thus, because members of the FBI were unrefined in their thinking, they carelessly lumped “people who were anti-fascists before 1939” and “communists” in the same category. With the benefit of hindsight, we are able to forgive and even look kindly on people who recognized the evil of fascism. However, back then, people were guilty by association if they stood for things that communists also stood for, like opposition to fascism or (as it happens) support for labor unions.  
The thing about suspicion is that it leads to something that psychologists refer to as confirmation bias. In this context, it means that an FBI agent who suspects a person of being a communist will be particularly attentive to any information that tends to support this hypothesis, and ignore information that does not support this hypothesis.
Envision, if you like, the police detective who latches onto one crime suspect and ignores other suspects. We know that sloppy police work, particularly when combined with a zealous prosecution, can land innocent people in prison.
At this point, I will suggest that the phrase “I’ve got nothing to hide” presupposes that law enforcement officials are infallible. The FBI agents who assumed that “anti-fascist” meant “communist sympathizer” were less astute than the premature anti-fascists that they were investigating.
We’ve all heard stories about missteps that have occurred since 9-11. For a while, no one who had an Arab-sounding name could expect to board a plane in an American airport without being harassed. All of a sudden, there was a “no-fly list,” and from time to time, people who happened to share the same name as a person on the list might find themselves shut in a small room with a surly TSA agent.
Mikey Hicks: Terrorist?
The TSA has called it a myth that there is an 8 year old boy on the no-fly list. This is technically accurate. Mikey Hicks, a decorated Cub Scout, is not on the no-fly list. Instead, he is on a lengthier “selectee list,” and the TSA is under instruction to carefully scrutinize people named on the list, and the TSA and airlines have the latitude to prevent people named on the list from flying. As a result, Mikey has been denied a seat on a plane, and has been subjected to invasive pat-downs (source).
These mistakes by law enforcement are sometimes harmless. Sometimes these mistakes cause perfectly innocent people to miss a flight, despite having done nothing of a suspicious nature. And there have been a few occasions in which these mistakes have had deeply disturbing consequences. Mr. Maher Arar was taken into custody at an airport despite the fact that there was no evidence whatsoever that he was guilty of any crime and no evidence whatsoever to warrant so much as a reasonable suspicion. He did not benefit from the due process of the law, and was sent overseas to be tortured for 10 months before it came to someone’s attention that there had never been a valid reason to detain him (source).  
There are also times when one wonders if it is truly a matter of mistakes in judgment. In the 1970’s, President Nixon authorized surveillance of college students who protested the Vietnam War. People who opposed the war or who supported civil rights were deemed to be communist sympathizers. The government position at the time was to suppress and criminalize dissent.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, smearing people with the label “communist” has lost its cachet. But now people can be smeared with the label “terrorist.” The federal government has declared the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front to be terrorist organizations, and if you were to support either of these organizations you yourself would be considered a terrorist (source). Evidently, the term “terrorist” can be applied to any organization that seeks to operate outside the legal system. ALEC-sponsored proposals seek to define as “terrorist” activities such as trespassing on factory farms for the purpose of photographing animal cruelty (source).
The term “terrorist” has been applied to the organization known as Anonymous (source), despite the fact that members of the group are guilty only of hacking into computer networks and the occasional downloading of copyright restricted materials. Once, this might have been called “civil disobedience.”
Maybe you believe that the term “terrorist” should be used sparingly to refer to the use of violence against human beings to promote a political agenda – but that would be your opinion, and not the opinion of your government. And the implication is this: what people may need to hide from the prying eyes of government is dissent - or even the appearance of dissent. And once citizens become fearful of the consequences of attracting the attention of their government, tyranny has been achieved.
During the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests, the FBI was actively engaged in surveillance of non-violent protesters. Officials from the Department of Homeland Security discussed strategies for how to intrude upon First Amendment-protected peaceful protests. Two of these strategies include raising the suspicion that criminal activities are occurring within the protests, and raising the suspicion of terrorism.
The Federal Reserve in Richmond appears to have had personnel surveilling OWS planning. They were in contact with the FBI in Richmond to “pass on information regarding the movement known as occupy Wall Street.” There were repeated communications “to pass on updates of the events and decisions made during the small rallies and the following information received from the Capital Police Intelligence Unit through JTTF (Joint Terrorism Task Force) (Source).”
Surveillance, the sharing of personal data on protesters, and the coordination of government law enforcement activities occurred in so-called “fusion groups” in which the guidance of bankers and private security firms was sought. Documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests revealed that “The Memphis FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force met to discuss ‘domestic terrorism’ threats, including, Aryan Nations, Occupy Wall Street, and Anonymous.”
An interesting thing about involving the private sector in law enforcement activities is that, although government law enforcement are required to operate within the limitations of the 4th Amendment, private interests are not. Many Americans operate under the impression that their bank accounts and emails are private, but in the eyes of the law, any information that passes into the hands of third parties such as banks, credit card companies, or Internet Service Providers is no longer private. Employers are free to monitor the computer activity of their employees and operate surveillance devices.
Communists did not defeat this country and terrorists cannot do so. It is as Abraham Lincoln said: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

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