It was an unpleasant moment for the Obama administration.
On September 24, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who had been arrested and tortured by her country’s military rulers in the 1970s, stood before the United Nations and blasted the U.S. government’s endless appetite for digital surveillance.
“As many other Latin Americans, I fought against authoritarianism and censorship and I cannot but defend… the right to privacy of individuals and the sovereignty of my country,” she said.
“In the absence of the right to privacy, there can be no true freedom of expression and opinion, and therefore no effective democracy.”
Her speech came after revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency had not only indiscriminately collected information on the electronic communications of tens of millions of people, but that it had used its spying network to specifically monitor the emails and text messages of Rousseff and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto—ostensibly key allies in the region.
The U.S. is not the only culprit. In an article entitled “Révélations sur le Big Brother français,” Le Monde reported the French government, for one, has been capturing and storing most of the phone and Internet communications in its country.
Yet story after story, fueled by leaks from former security contractor Edward Snowden, is uncovering a U.S. surveillance empire with unprecedented reach and breadth.
In a snarky op-ed for the New York Times, Brazilian novelist Vanessa Barbara pointed to the bright side: “I am hoping that [the NSA] has kept a backup of my files,” she wrote, “since a few months ago I realized that I could no longer find an important video anywhere in my computer. (Mr. Obama, if you’re reading this, please send me the file ‘summer2012.wmv’ as soon as you can.)”
While Barbara was being facetious, many Americans have adopted a more serious indifference. I sympathize with public apathy, since part of me shares the prevalent attitude of, “If you’re doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.” Often, my backlogged e-mails bore even me. So if the government wants to take a look, I feel less outrage than a sense of pity for the unfortunate NSA employees assigned to spend their work hours pouring through my inbox.
Yet, as the revelations mount, the cause for alarm is becoming ever clearer—as is the disingenuousness of government apologists.
Administration officials repeatedly asserted that the U.S. does not collect data about its citizens, that it protects privacy before sharing intelligence with foreign powers, and that its programs are subject to careful oversight. Even charitable accounts must now describe these positions as “misleading.”
Over the summer, the Guardian showed how NSA servers can archive “nearly everything a user does on the Internet.” More recently, the New York Times reported that the agency “has been exploiting its huge collections of data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans’ social connections that can identify their associates, their locations at certain times, their traveling companions, and other personal information.”
For social movements, the idea that the state would map citizens’ interpersonal relations is particularly chilling—and is a troubling expansion of past abuse. Just a generation ago the FBI tried to convince Martin Luther King, Jr. to commit suicide. (True story.) And within the last decade, Freedom of Information Act lawsuits showed that the Pentagon monitored non-violent opponents of the Iraq War—including Quakers and student groups—and stored the information in an anti-terrorism database.
At a March hearing, before the Snowden leaks, Senator Ron Wyden asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, “does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
“No, sir,” Clapper answered.
He now says that he misunderstood the question.
Those who agree with Rousseff that effective democracy requires a right to privacy need not misunderstand the threat posed by such government lies.