Surveillance State

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Surveillance, Safety… and Rabbit Hunting

in Liberator Online Archives by Sharon Harris Comments are off

(From the President’s Corner section in Volume 19, No. 8 of the Liberator Online. Subscribe here!)

For the past year or so liberty-loving Americans have been appalled by the revelations of Rabbit HuntingEdward Snowden and others about the secret and unconstitutional spying programs the federal government is engaged in.

Ironically, we’ve also learned that the programs have been spectacularly ineffective. As the federal Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board said earlier this year:

“We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation. Moreover, we are aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.”

And that reminds me of a story…

Federal Rabbit Hunting

The NSA, the CIA and the FBI were fighting among themselves, each arguing that they were the best and most qualified at apprehending terrorists.

Finally the president decided to settle the argument with a simple test. He would release a rabbit into a forest, and give each agency a chance to find and capture it.

The NSA went first. They placed cameras throughout the forest. They eavesdropped on every animal, plant and mineral. NSA drones circled the forest, filming every leaf on every tree. After three months of extensive investigations the NSA concluded that there was no rabbit in the forest at all. But they warned the president that 300 other kinds of animals and insects were behaving strangely and the whole forest needed round-the-clock surveillance.

Then the CIA went in. They captured numerous innocent animals and questioned them harshly, but got no information. After two weeks with no leads they burned the forest to the ground, killing everything in it. “The rabbit had it coming,” one agent said. (Later, the NSA sent the president a classified tape showing the rabbit hopping away from the forest just before it was destroyed.)

Finally the FBI had their chance. They went into another forest chosen by the president. Just two hours later they proudly emerged — holding a ruffled, badly frightened raccoon. The raccoon shouted: “Okay! Okay! I’m a rabbit! I’m a rabbit!”

* * *
Tired of the surveillance state? See this issue’s Intellectual Ammunition column to learn about “Reset The Net,” a worldwide effort to preserve free speech and liberty on the Internet by taking simple steps to shut off the government’s mass surveillance capabilities. You’re invited to take part.

The Surveillance Scandal: The Right — and the Wrong –Terms

in Communicating Liberty, Liberator Online Archives by Sharon Harris Comments are off

“In the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be eaten; in the 

Privacy or Liberty?human kingdom, define or be defined.”

So wrote the great libertarian Thomas Szasz.

Define or be defined. That’s a key principle of effective communication.

You can see this at work right now, in the unfolding scandal concerning government surveillance and the resulting public debate.

Those who defend such programs are using specific words to attempt to redefine and change what is at stake in this debate.

“I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security, and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” President Obama said this month. “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

Similarly, I’ve watched TV pundits and talk show hosts discuss this issue over and over again — always using the word “privacy” and talking about “the debate over balancing security with privacy.”

What’s going on here? The president and his supporters are attempting to define — or perhaps more accurately, redefine — the debate.

They want us to see this, and discuss this, as a question of “privacy” and “convenience” versus “security.”

Or even better for them, as Obama puts it in the quote above: “100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience” versus security.

They want these words and phrases to define the debate because, if we debate using these terms, they win.

The argument that we must compromise on “privacy” and “convenience” sounds so reasonable. After all, don’t we all routinely relinquish some privacy for other values? For example, we voluntarily give websites like Facebook our personal information, in exchange for the value of being able to use their services. We give credit card companies detailed information about our financial and personal lives for the benefits of using their cards.

As for “convenience,” it sounds unreasonable — in fact, downright selfish — not to be willing to give up something so trivial as a little convenience in order to protect Americans from terrorism.

That’s the argument the administration and its defenders want to make. It’s how they want to frame the debate.

But “privacy” and “convenience” are not what this debate is about. Not at all.

It’s about liberty. The Fourth Amendment. Fundamental Bill of Rights freedoms. The Constitution. Basic rights. Core freedoms.

“Privacy” and “convenience” are squishy, malleable, non-political terms. It’s easy to imagine “striking a balance” between them and something so vital as security.

But it’s far harder to imagine “balancing” your fundamental liberty. Anyone familiar with politics and history can see that such balancing acts quickly tip over to the government side.

They want to change the debate. Don’t let them.

Don’t use terms like “privacy” and “convenience” when discussing this issue. You lose every time these words are the ones used to describe what’s at stake in this debate. Politely but firmly object to them if politicians and others use them.

Point out that this debate is about liberty. The Fourth Amendment. Fundamental Bill of Rights freedoms. The Constitution. Constitutional guarantees. Basic rights. Core freedoms.

This is also a great time to memorize, and quote, the words of Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

And the words of President Obama, in 2009: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

Define — or be defined.