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Social Advocacy & Politics: All Secrecy and No Privacy in the Surveillance Society


In the wake of the AP and Verizon phone record scandals and the Supreme Court’s decision to allow DNA swabbing of people arrested for “serious crimes,” people are finally questioning tradeoffs between freedom and security. I’ve been worried about it since George (the president, not the king) repealed the right of habeas corpus for terrorism suspects. And while it is possible that the public ire over habeas corpus was dampened by the reality that most Americans don’t speak Latin, the people get that the recent spate of scandals and the SCOTUS decision is a threat to our privacy; our freedom.

Side note - Watch how conservatives split on this question: Tea Partiers and Libertarians versus Defense Hawks over national security priorities; social conservatives (pro-lifers) and libertarians over the defining privacy as freedom.

There are four types of surveillance in the Surveillance Society:

  1. Invasive – Justice Antonin Scalia dissented from the 5-4 decision to uphold a Maryland law that gave law enforcement permission to swab all people arrested for a “serious crime” for their DNA because it was an invasive search that violated the 4th Amendment. This seems to be the most obvious objection, yet 5 of the 9 Justices didn’t think so.
  2. Obtrusive – Non-invasive, but disruptive to your daily lives. Going through a check-point is a good example of obtrusive surveillance.
  3. Unobtrusive – We have cameras everywhere. Yet, for the most part, we carry on with our lives as if they weren’t there.
  4. Volunteered – Do you tweet? Post your life to Facebook? Have your resume in full bloom on LinkedIn? Who needs the other kinds of surveillance if people are posting enough information voluntarily for authorities, corporations, advocacy and political organizations to create remarkably accurate profiles of each of us?

Ben Franklin said long ago that, “Anyone who trades liberty for security deserves neither liberty nor security.” If you listen to the debate over all of these surveillance scandals, you can hear this notion wandering about the core of it. But while all the focus is on whether government should be able to monitor American citizens to keep us safe from terrorists with more surveillance, we go about our days publicly sharing so much about ourselves, anyway.

We check-in as we move place to place on Foursquare, Yelp, Facebook, or just with a tweet. We accept cookies on our computer when browsing website after website. We have public conversations with people all over the country and the world about all sorts of topics. You might think all this sharing is innocuous, but it is extremely revealing, not just to the government, but to anyone, company or organization willing to collect the data.

Anyone or organization can use social media data, available through public APIs, combined with census data and cookie data to create incredibly accurate profiles of their members or any list of people they collect. And with this data, businesses can target advertising to the right audiences, advocacy groups can identify their most stalwart supporters, criminals can identify marks, and governments can find terrorists. But regardless of who is looking for whom, the bottom line is we are all potentially under surveillance for the benefit of someone else, certainly, and for the benefit of society, possibly.

But if surveillance undermines our liberty, our debate about it should not be limited to the acts of government. The surveillance society is pervasive and expansive. We just don’t seem to care about some of it.

Social Advocacy & Politics is a weekly, exclusive column for Social Media Today by Alan Rosenblatt that explores the intersection of politics and social media. Look for the next installment next Tuesday morning. 

Join The Conversation

  • Jun 17 Posted 3 years ago vniven

    The key difference between letting the government monitor you and letting private companies do the same is that our government enjoys at least 2 orders of magnitude more power over our lives than the largest private corporation.  

    The federal government employs a military, collects taxes, passes laws and regulates our industries.  Our local and state governments control our schools, our roads and our public infrastructure.

    This is why discussions of privacy and security should be segregated between public and private sectors.


  • tuusensational's picture
    Jun 11 Posted 3 years ago tuusensational

    Excellent points, Alan.

    Americans know little about the Constitution, much less the Bill of Rights. Romney was very accurate about 47% of Americans expecting the government to be their primary support. At least one out of five or six of the total population receives food stamps (debit cards). Almost half receives a form of Federal payment as a base of their annual income. State governments depend on Federal grants and investment to support their budgets. Even the most conservative States have massive Federal investment (BLM, Military bases etc.) as an essential form of income. Community Block Grants, the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance is huge.

    The Fourth Amendment was instituted to prevent the search and seizure that the Colonists had endured prior to the events of 1775. The recent passivity of the residents of Boston and Watertown as armor wearing police forced their way into their homes, ordering them out, totally devoid of any search warrants shows how many have become accepting of authority-based and paramilitary force under the pretense of security and protection.

    The Fourth Amendment prescribes that certain criteria be in existence for a legal search, evidence, a formal court process and other descriptive forms require proof. Secret courts, broad collection of data and maintaining a huge volume of material that could be used in the event of future investigations are as unconstitutional as you can get. Yet many Americans, and a disturbingly high number of communications professionals seem to acquiesce to going along.

    Social media information collection by nonprofits and most social media groups for use within that group  is essentially voluntary. Accessing that data for general broad based intelligence gathering by a secret group with questionable accountability such as NSA is a serious violation of the spirit and intent of the 4th Amendment.


    Now, Alan you realize that we are now on the bulls-eye for NSA etc. by even discussing this. I'm proud to be in your company and fellowship. This is a time to stand and "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States". Good work !

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