The Asymmetric Panopticon

As I’ve noted before on this blog–in unison with many other commentators–the ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, then you shouldn’t mind the government spying on you’ argument is among the dumbest to be made in defense of the NSA‘s surveillance program. A related argument is the ‘we don’t have privacy anyway, so quit tilting at windmills.’

A composite assumption of sorts that emerges from these is that the citizenry has no privacy, has no reasonable expectation of any in today’s most notable sphere of personal, political and economic interaction – the Internet, and thus, should be prepared and accepting of essentially unlimited scrutiny of its activities by the government and even private corporations.

These assumptions, along with the wholesale swallowing of governmental and corporate rationales for secrecy in the face of shadowy external threats and proprietary imperatives respectively have led to a rather dangerous panopticon: we are visible at all times, under a steady and constant gaze, to these ever-powerful entities, but they, and their internal machinations are not. (As I noted in my post on Bill Keller last year, it has also led to incompetent journalists asserting that those who demand transparency about the government should disclose details about their personal lives.)

There is nothing remotely symmetric about this arrangement.

On the governmental end, more material than ever before is rated ‘Classified’ or ‘Top Secret’ thus ensuring that those who strive to make it available to the public eye face–as may be seen in the case of Julian Assange, Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden–prosecution and public ridicule. It is worth remembering that the government’s classification of material as ‘Top Secret’, which is the basis for legal prosecution of whistleblowers, is never up for contestation. Thus, one strategy to make transparency harder and whistleblowing more dangerous is to simply classify huge amounts of material thus. It helps too, to mount a furious barrage of accusations of treason and worse against the whistleblower. (A related strategy makes it harder to observe and record the work of law enforcement officers: New York’s S.2402 bill, will, if nothing else, make it much more dangerous to videotape police officers in action.)

On the corporate end, opacity is ensured by a bewildering combination of trade secrets, non-disclosure agreements, proprietary recipes, business methods, and the like; these ensure that those who collect data about us are almost always working in the shadows, away from the public eye, their machinations and strategies and imperatives poorly understood.

So, we find ourselves at this pass: we are told that we have no privacy and should not expect any, but those who want our data and use it to control the contours of our lives, have all the privacy they need and want and then some; we are told that if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear, but those who collect our data surreptitiously are allowed to hide what they do.  (Frank Pasquale‘s forthcoming book The Black Box Society: Technologies of Search, Reputation, and Finance will analyze and highlight this alarming state of affairs. As Pasquale points out, transparency should be a two-way street; data disclosure agreements should require the collectors to make themselves and their methods known and visible.)

The tables have been turned and we are pinned beneath them.  We cower, while our data collectors strut and preen.

Bill Keller Needs to Drop the Snark and Do Serious Journalism

Over at the New York Times, Bill Keller, who has been doing his best to make sure it will be hard to take him for a serious  journalist, writes a piece–bursting to the seams with snark–on Wikileaks. Keller thinks he is providing a serious evaluation of the fallout of Wikileaks (most particularly, its leaking of a gigantic corpus of military and diplomatic secrets last year). But Keller–whose trafficking in superficiality has been embarassingly on display for all too long on the NYT’s Op-Ed’s pages–simply cannot be bothered with seriously engaging with the issues that Wikileaks raised. Like: the need for transparency for those in power (as opposed to the privacy rights of individuals); the relationship of journalists with politicians; and most importantly, the all-too-evident eagerness of modern journalists to roll over and play faithful stenographer or megaphone for Wall Street, Capitol Hill and the Pentagon.

Instead, all Keller can do, in a pathetic display of lame attempts at sophomoric snark, is dish out one jibe after the other at Julian Assange. (His evident dislike for Assange tells me that Assange really hit home.) There are, count-em, sixteen paragraphs in Keller’s peice. It’s not till we get to the seventh or eighth paragraph that Keller stops being juvenile and starts to say something substantive.

And it’s not much. Roughly: Wikileaks exposed too much. In response, the always-secretive have become more secretive. And now life is harder for all us Serious Journalists[tm]. So let me get this straight:  in response to exposure,  those ensconced in power have dug their heels in, become more opaque, stepped up their chilling attacks on journalists and potential whistle-blowers, and this is Wikileaks fault? Could Keller be more offensive, more of a fawning lapdog of the powerful and the opaque, if he tried? I don’t think so.

Keller also forgets, in his Why-Did-This-Nonconformist-Crash-This-Comfortable-Politician-And-Media-Garden-Party litany, the role that the rest of his supine media crew played in ensuring that Wikileaks’ impact was minimized. Who took up cudgels on Wikileaks behalf? Did the media give ample column inches and airtime to the case for Wikileaks? Were the corporate-government smear jobs on Wikileaks adequately highlighted? Has the media establishment stepped back from its passionate embrace of those in power and looked a little more closely, a little more aggressively, at their pronouncements? They are the ones in power, remember?

If the secretive and powerful have become more secretive in response to exposure, the response of a serious journalist should be to make sure the secrecy is investigated even more closely.  It most emphatically should not be to shower scorn and ridicule on those who took risks in trying to expose the powerful. The idiotic quoting of the off-base SNL skit, which confuses the privacy of private citizens with the opacity of governmental entities, is perhaps the best indication that Keller has lost the plot. But far more offensive is the simpleminded acceptance of the government’s position: if you dare expose us, we’ll become even more secretive.

Keller is pushing back at the wrong forces in this debate. In doing that, he is merely the latest depressing example of the incestuous embrace of the political and media establishments in this nation.