This is an excerpt from the new e-book Surveillance Nation: Critical Reflections on Privacy and Its Threats, a fascinating and timeless alternative history on the rise of the surveillance state. The e-book is now available on tablets, smartphones and computers—download yours today.
A healthy democracy demands transparency from its government and privacy for its citizenry. Only if we know what our government is up to can we exercise our responsibility as citizens to ratify or veto their actions at the ballot box. And only if we can be assured that our conversations are not being monitored by government officials will we have the space to develop our critical faculties, pursue intimate associations, try out new political ideas and flourish as human beings.
However, too many government officials, even in democratic states, tend to favor secrecy for their own actions and transparency from the citizenry. When asked what measures they are employing that might threaten our privacy, officials have long responded with some version of “We can’t tell you, of course… but trust us.” And when facing charges that they have violated the privacy of those they represent, the government invariably argue’s for the narrowest definitions of privacy (your metadata isn’t private) and the broadest justifications for invading it (“fighting terrorism” generally does the trick).
Because democracy depends on government transparency and personal privacy, but our representatives too often prefer the opposite, citizens, civil society and the press must be vigilant about privacy and its threats. Absent popular resistance, the tendency of government to favor secrecy and access to its citizens’ most intimate information will undermine the very foundations of democracy. For its entire existence, The Nation has exercised that watchdog role for the country with courage, conviction and persistence. This volume, consisting of essays, investigations, editorials and columns dating from 1931 to 2014, illustrates the critical importance of the Fourth Estate in checking the desires of the surveillance state.
Edward Snowden’s in June 2013 disclosures of the National Security Agency’s vast, global spying network are only the latest in a series of revelations with a common theme: security and intelligence agencies have an omnivorous appetite for information about all of us. Even if they act entirely in good faith, their job description is to provide intelligence (CIA), to investigate crime (FBI) or to maintain security (NSA)—not to protect civil liberties. So, even when acting from the best of motives, they will be inclined to discount privacy concerns and overestimate security needs. And often, of course, they don’t act from the best of motives. They may be driven by partisan concerns, the desire to entrench their own authority, or paranoia about “the enemy”—or, as in the case of the nation’s most infamous law enforcement officer, J. Edgar Hoover, all of the above.
The history of political spying and unwarranted incursions on privacy is a long and troubling one. Hoover got his start, as a young lawyer just out of law school, in the Radical Alien Division of the Justice Department. There, he helped orchestrate the infamous Palmer Raids of 1919-20 after a series of bombs exploded throughout the country, one of them tearing the front off the home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Rather than investigate the crimes and bring the specific perpetrators to justice, the government used immigration authorities to round up thousands of “usual suspects,” almost entirely on grounds of affiliation with anarchists or communists, interrogated them brutally for “intelligence,” and ultimately sought to deport many of them. None of the bombers were brought to justice.