Now, some people will surely argue that giving up a few privacy rights is a small cost for making sure our country is safe. In his essay, “Invisible Man: Ethics in a World Without Secrets,” philosopher Peter Singer suggests that people will be more honest and altruistic if they feel that they are being watched, referring to Focault’s idea of the “panopticon” as an ideal model.1 Human beings are easily influenced by social pressures, so I don’t question the validity of Singer’s suggestion, but I have to ask, what will this feeling of being watched do to people’s personalities and sense of identity over time?
In George Orwell’s 1984, Orwell introduces the concept of “Big Brother,” a figure that has become synonymous with the idea of government surveillance.2 Big Brother is government surveillance at its worst (if you so much as think about rebellion, “the Party” will find you and torture you into submission, however long it takes), but I can’t help but sense a bit of Big Brother in Singer’s interpretation of the panopticon. The United States government may not be trying to control our thoughts and establish a totalitarian state, but will people still feel comfortable behaving naturally and “being themselves” if they feel like they are always under the government’s eye? How long will it take before people either start feeling the need to be surreptitious about their behavior and take it underground, or start basing their regular behavior on government ideals for fear of being accused of a crime otherwise (although I feel like the former possibility is more likely)?
The government may say that it needs to circumvent certain rights in order to crack down on terrorist threats, but there are ways to do so while protecting American citizens’ right to privacy and remaining within the limits of the Constitution. A perfect example of this is the US National Security Agency (NSA)’s pre-9/11 surveillance project, ThinThread. The NSA was falling behind, technologically speaking, as America headed into the Internet age. It was awash in more data than it could possibly comprehend with its information processing methods at the time. ThinThread, developed by NSA crypto-mathematician Bill Binney while working with the agency’s Signals Intelligence Automation Research Center (SARC), was going to be the solution.3 Journalist Jane Mayer explains in an article for the New Yorker, that what made ThinThread ingenious is that, “Instead of vacuuming up information around the world and then sending it all back to headquarters for analysis, ThinThread processed information as it was collected—discarding useless information on the spot and avoiding the overload problem that plagued centralized systems.”3 ThinThread was so thorough and good at collecting information that it picked up intelligence on American citizens without the NSA intending it to. As a fix, Binney built in a set of privacy controls. With these controls in place, data on American citizens would remain encrypted unless ThinThread flagged it as a potential threat. In this case, it would remain encrypted until NSA officials were able to obtain a proper warrant to access it. The NSA could scour the world for threats and pinpoint specific bits of potentially significant data, all while maintaining a reasonably small budget for the project, remaining within the confines of the law and protecting the privacy of American citizens. But after 9/11 that was