Surveillance state saps freedom

The surveillance state expands. The Patriot Act allows our phones to be wiretapped. Our email and Internet transactions leave a trail for some to follow. The police can access our GPS location data through our smartphones without a warrant. Retailers record our purchasing habits with painstaking detail. Apparently, Target studies those purchases to determine when customers are pregnant — in the second trimester, no less — for specialized marketing purposes.

And now, there will be surveillance drones. Congress recently passed a bill ("The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012") that opens the gates to widespread use of surveillance drones on U.S. soil. They will be used for law enforcement and border protection but also commercially — for real estate, entertainment and journalism, for example. One prominent drone showcased on the Web is a hummingbird drone. As the name suggests, it's tiny, quick and highly mobile. A popular video shows the hummingbird drone entering a building and flying down a corridor, transmitting everything it sees. It's chilling to imagine the possibilities — and the future.


The political problem with all this surveillance is obvious if we'd care to admit it. Authorities have so much more access to the details of our lives, information which, in the wrong hands, could do real harm. The only thing protecting us is the character of those in power who collect all this information — and swear they will do nothing objectionable with it.

Regarding the new National Defense Authorization Act, which sanctions the president's power to detain indefinitely or even assassinate U.S. citizens suspected of involvement in terrorist organizations, President Barack Obama tried to allay fears by saying that this administration will use discretion and judgment in exercising this power. What about subsequent administrations? The Founding Fathers were highly concerned to design a government impervious to corruption by character flaws of individual officeholders. The "war on terror" has steadily rendered us vulnerable to just that.


Perhaps most remarkable about the growing surveillance state is how we are largely unperturbed by it. Indeed, we jump headlong into the new technologies that allow us to be watched. The ACLU cries like a voice in the wilderness about civil rights threats, but we're too busy shopping online, sharing intimate personal details on Facebook, Tweeting our most mundane revelations.

I pressed my college students on this recently, and one student pointed out that they were 10 years old when the Patriot Act was implemented. They have also spent half their lives or more with the Internet, email and smartphones, and so have known nothing else. In short, surveillance is their norm. And they have known only benevolent (or at least innocuous) surveillance to date.

Does this mean they trust the powers that know so much about them and could do so much with this knowledge? Hardly. They have little confidence in the ruling parties — and that's a view shared by people across the spectrum. Why do we surrender so much information, and ultimately power, to authorities we trust so little?

You might say we're just lazy, or too enamored with the new technologies to worry about who is watching us and why. Alternately, as Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor has argued, we are a society increasingly suffering "time poverty": We work long hours, commute long distances, ferry our kids to countless activities, and in our frenzy have come to rely on the new technologies that help us get through our frantic schedules. In general, digital media are so fully integrated into our lives, we simply can't imagine living without them. They have gotten us accustomed to convenience such as we've never known before — a convenience directly proportionate to the amount of personal information we surrender.

Underlying it all, however, is something else: We've lost sight of the significance of privacy, and that it's essential to freedom and democracy. We willingly give up our privacy in the belief that our freedom remains untouched. In a war on terror, privacy seems like an easy sacrifice, especially when you get the wondrous conveniences of all the new media in return. But freedom without privacy, the French philosopher Michel Foucault argued, is no freedom at all.

According to Foucault, surveillance exerts a covert pressure that can approach a kind of oppression. Under constant surveillance, he maintained, we feel less free to be eccentric or quirky, or take chances in our behavior — behavior that matters politically, that is. We are more prone to conform, less liable to ask vexing social questions that might draw attention to ourselves and upset whoever is watching. We are less inclined to develop our own ideas and opinions, work them out, test them in public venues and stick to them. Democracy, however, requires creative, independent, fearless individualism.

There is no halting the progress of technology — a progress that has become frighteningly quick in the digital age. However, this is no excuse to accept a profusion of hummingbird drones on our streets and in our neighborhoods. The surveillance drones will come, but we must watch them in turn — and the watchers. It starts when we recall that privacy is an essential good, a non-negotiable right, as the authors of our Constitution — in a time far removed from the Digital Age — once understood very well.

Firmin DeBrabander is associate professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art. His email is