The people, well acquainted with their own true interests, would understand that, in order to profit from the advantages of the state, it is necessary to satisfy its own requirements – de Tocquieville (Democracy in America)
Last year Edward Snowden, whistle-blower and exile, held his first video conference with an Australian audience at Melbourne Town Hall (you can listen to it here) to discuss his views on new tensions between government surveillance and privacy. One of his main points was that, ultimately, these issues are vital to democracy. Because, as with the case of the secret US government surveillance program (PRISM) he exposed, the people cannot be involved in decisions of governance if they are not aware of them.
Towards the end of the talk, an audience member asked Snowden how we could respond to governments push for greater surveillance powers. He began characteristically, “I think you have to develop a culture that is not submissive. There has to be a measure of anti-authoritarianism.”, but he continued, “It’s not that we think government is evil, it’s not that we think it’s sinister, it’s not that we think anyone has bad intentions. It’s that the most powerful in our society have to be held to a higher standard of behavior…”. This measured response, I tend to agree with. Yet, I wonder if Snowden’s courteous remarks (“not evil” “not sinister”) hint at a direction just as important as resistance and scepticism are to the integrity of democracies. The USA in particular may need, not ‘anti-authoritarianism’ (which they have in spades), but rather a willingness to be less ‘anti’ and more cooperative; to consider the requirements of government, (to consider compromise).
Under the PRISM program, the NSA negotiated with 9 major internet businesses (Google, Facebook etc.) so that, following approval of a secret court, they could access to any data that these corporations themselves could access. This includes content rich data such as photos, videos, emails contents, as well as ‘meta’ data –addresses of websites visited, email headers and so on. These processes – engineered into software such as Skype – were not announced, and were denied under oath by the Director of National Intelligence.
By point of contrast, with the Australian government’s October 13 meta data-retention laws Australian ISPs are now required to store meta-data for up to 2 years for potential government access. Snowden refers to this new law in his discussion as an issue of great concern in Australia. But in the case of these laws, Australians at least know about them, and we knew about them prior to their legislation. This is of course what we ought to expect from a democracy. Yet, perhaps this may also be loosely connected to Australian’s tendency to countenance government regulations – to complain but to comply.
This is not an argument that the people should have accepted PRISM had the US government proposed it to them. It may be that the United States’ government really is a threat to the liberty and livelihoods of some or many and ought to be treated with great caution. But this would not necessarily (or only) be symptom of tyrannical intent improperly policed. To take one of Snowden’s points: PRISM was in a position to abuse its power because it was kept secret. But why was it designed to be secret in the first place? ‘Because they had the power to do so’ is only one part of the answer; perhaps too, this is a result of a government culture which has evolved to function in an environment of deeply embedded resistance to government authority. The result may be a vicious cycle between anti-authoritarianism and government over-reach, and a system which is less amenable to the integrity of democracy than it would be were the culture more conciliatory.
[edited for brevity – 13/01/15]