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Monday, June 2, 2014

The All-Seeing Eye

Before he conked out, he asked Odysseus his name.

“Nobody,” replied the hero.

“Well, Mr. Nobody, I like you,” said the Cyclops drowsily. “In fact, I like you so much that I’m going to do you a favor. I’ll eat you last.”

With these encouraging words, he fell fast asleep. Odysseus jumped up and put his men to work. They put a sharp point on the end of a pole and hardened it in the fire. Then, with a mighty “heave-ho,” they rammed it into the Cyclops’s eye.

Big Brother is indeed watching. Edward Snowden’s revelations continue to paint a disturbing picture of a surveillance-State panopticon the extent of which Orwell could not adequately have described in his time. And we are only now coming to understand just how much power the federal government has to peer into our personal lives.

This “architecture of oppression” might not seem terribly threatening to those of us sitting comfortably in suburbia watching Netflix original series. But as the State changes the definition of a domestic terrorist by shades, and as it ratchets up the levels of taxation, regulation, and control by degrees, more and more people will come to be thought of as enemies of that apparatus.

In this connected age, we are seeing the early stages of an arms race to reclaim our privacy and rights through what has come to be known as “privacy by design.” In this contest, a determined group of people are working together in networks to pull the shades on Big Brother. But Big Brother is powerful.

Who is likely to win this arms race? At the moment it is not clear. Currently there is a small but highly skilled guerilla movement of coders and hackers who are making privacy possible again. And yet constituencies who really value privacy are not nearly large enough. Their numbers will have to grow to form cultural support around privacy by design, so that rapid adoption and mass dissemination create a powerful unified bloc. Sadly, by the time people experience any unpleasantness associated with mass surveillance, it may be too late to do anything about it.

Counter to this growing privacy movement, however, there is a general popular malaise. Even those who tut about the loss of privacy are largely apathetic. The rest believe that those departments that constitute the surveillance State have our best interests at heart. Some live in mortal fear of terrorist threats. Others think that if people have nothing to hide they also have nothing to fear. But as the State becomes more powerful and more controlling, more people will have more and more things to hide. Such a vicious cycle will justify enlarging Big Brother. In the twentieth century we saw apparently benevolent State powers turn into full-fledged enemies of the people virtually overnight. Could it happen again?

All of this gives a new twist to Jefferson’s admonition that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. The perennial question, of course, is who will watch the watchers?

In tandem with the “privacy by design” movement is a group concerned with “privacy by statute.” For most people who care about privacy, this is the default position. This group believes we should just pass laws that will check this inordinate power. In Texas, for example, the legislature passed a bill that limits the state’s ability to read someone’s older emails without probable cause. It had once been the case that the state could read emails older than 180 days; if you live in Texas, this is now illegal. But not everyone lives in Texas—and the law doesn’t apply to federal investigators.

To advocates of privacy by design, statutory measures are not nearly enough. Indeed, given the federal government’s penchant to bypass the constitution or find any legal loophole necessary, it’s become increasingly clear to many privacy advocates that privacy is something that must be coded, not lobbied for.

In any case, you are now living in the surveillance State. The federal government has the power to do virtually anything it wants. Soon we and our neighbors will have to decide whether we will become part of that immovable mass of people whose apathy ensures its inertia, or whether we will do something.

If we decide privacy is worth restoring, perhaps we will decide it’s time to take a trip to the legislature and make a clever poster that hopefully some conscientious legislator will actually read. Or, maybe—just maybe—we’ll decide the best way to take down this great Polyphemus is to network a million Odysseuses and put the power of privacy directly into their hands.

  • The Freeman is the flagship publication of the Foundation for Economic Education and one of the oldest and most respected journals of liberty in America. For more than 50 years it has uncompromisingly defended the ideals of the free society.