Privacy and Surveillance: In Our Other Lives

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For the last two decades, American troops have counted on cameras and sensors mounted to UAVs, helicopters, airplanes and blimps to provide the kinds of streaming intelligence that separate winners from losers on the battlefield.  By requesting an "ISR soak" of the battlefield, a commander can set eyes on the objective from a bird's eye view, making timely adjustments to the scheme of maneuver before sending ground troops into enemy contact.  But so much more is collected than just pictures of the enemy.  A person's entire pattern of life -- dress, height, weight, and posture, as well as where one lives, works, and sleeps -- can be discerned from the heap of data those cameras and sensors produce, not to mention all the personal information picked up through human or signals intelligence.  Most people agree: this kind of widespread, deep surveillance is justified when there is a compelling need to protect lives and accomplish the mission on a foreign battlefield, and when the subjects of surveillance are not Americans. 

Now, the camera's lens is turning its focus to American citizens. Last week, one federal district court judge refused to prohibit the Baltimore Police Department from operating a roving surveillance plane over most of that city.  Using re-purposed technology developed by the Air Force during the Iraq War, the Baltimore system can take in more than 30 miles of urban property in granular detail, augmenting law enforcement officers by visually identifying the perpetrators of violent crimes.  And reporting from earlier in April revealed the federal government has awarded several contracts to Palantir, an intelligence analytics company used for more than a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places, to first locate and profile violent extremists, and then predict their future whereabouts.  Palantir is deploying software that integrates hundreds of datasets from private industry and government sources to anticipate the course of coronavirus outbreaks.   

So what happens to privacy when the technology of battlefield surveillance comes home?  

Novelist Ted Wheeler takes up questions of privacy and surveillance in his new novel, In Our Other Lives (Little A, 2020).  In the story, a woman's brother goes missing in Pakistan before resurfacing in a terrorist propaganda video, causing the FBI to assign a special agent to trace the man's connection to international terror groups.  The agent's investigation leads back to the woman, whose phone calls and personal communications, which include some of the most intimate and revealing moments of her life, become evidence in the agent's files.  I spoke with Ted about these themes.

Many people think, "Surveillance on me? I have nothing to hide; collect away."  Do you agree with this sentiment? 

This is what I used to think before I started writing the novel.

I graduated college in 2005 and the Patriot Act, which was signed into law in the fall of 2001, was a part of my life, a part of everyone's life in America.  I always agreed with the sentiment you express in the question, and I assume most Americans did; the privacy trade-off made sense in light of urgent national security concerns.  But in 2014, after Edward Snowden blew the whistle on certain NSA programs, I started to think differently.  I read an article in the Guardian where NSA contractors explained how they became really involved in the lives of people they surveilled, and all the things they were observing, the really private things, in the lives of their subjects.  I started thinking about how every private moment of my life, marital strife, and grandparents dying and so many others could become known to someone else, that all these private moments become recorded and stored somewhere.  I'm bothered that the information is stored, really.

So, I think the rules for government surveillance of private citizens are loose, even in the context of security, but I tend to think of the surveillance made by private industry giants like Facebook, Google, and Amazon as very similar.  The data is collected in massive troves; the data is used to identify specific people and control or affect them in some way.  I read civil lawsuits in my day job, and the lengths companies go to cover up bad information about them makes me squeamish because we cannot control or take back that information.

In short, I've gotten away from thinking that surveillance of me or people like me is just benign, regardless if it's the government or a company on the other side.  It's never that simple. 

Is privacy just the fear of being judged?

No; privacy is more than that.  

In my book, the main character is fleeing her small town and trying to get away from a rough history; she wants to reinvent herself, and she does not want to be judged, so privacy is especially important to her.  She moves to a bigger city to become her own person and escape her past, which is so hard to do anymore because of social media and the endless history of someone's digital life all being stored somewhere.  Privacy gives her the freedom to live her own life.

Obviously, no one has access to someone's thoughts, which can't be photographed or recorded, but still, we speculate constantly about other people's thoughts and motivations. A lack of information doesn't exactly stop us.  For me, the purpose of a surveillance mechanism is to catalogue everything about a person, to intrude ever further into their private lives.  Speaking of surveillance as a type of government paternalism, certainly as a parent, you want to understand what your child is thinking, but there's never enough information to actually get inside their thoughts.  Children have basically no physical privacy, but still they are, like the rest of us, alone in their thoughts. 

So, to answer your question, my characters need privacy because they want to build their lives the way they want to, which is difficult to accomplish under pervasive and constant government scrutiny.

Surveillance is one-way intimacy, where the person conducting surveillance knows everything, becomes attached, and the person being surveilled is left oblivious.  Do you agree?

Yes, I think so.  In preparing to write my novel, I ended up reading a lot of reports about East Germany, where this type of surveillance was widely done, but, of course, the surveillance was never reciprocated.  The FBI character is upset at the end of the book when his investigation finally ends because he cannot continue following the woman's life; he's left wondering what will happen to her next, and that disappoints him.

But, then again, sometimes we consent to being surveilled, whether through social media or by how much we willingly give away to corporations when we agree to the terms and conditions on a website or something.  If you ask people whether they want to be free from surveillance, they would say 'yes', but sometimes our ideals don’t match up with how we actually live. 

"Whatever it takes to get to the other side."  This is the national emergency mentality that emerged after 9/11 and now during the response to the coronavirus pandemic.  What are its drawbacks?  

I think it's important to take a breath on it. To use a micro-example: the roads in my town are horrible because we put so much salt and brine on them during the wintertime in order to keep everyone moving on their morning and evening commutes.  So, the solution to snow and ice in the wintertime ends up becoming the cause of potholes and poor roads in the spring and summer and into the fall. 

I think South Korea and Japan have used tracking technologies effectively, in terms of controlling the outbreaks, and it's necessary to use these resources during a time of national emergency, but the side-effects are the problem.  Namely, that the tools developed during the response to an emergency become a new status quo, a new normal.  I write a lot of historical fiction, and the current circumstances remind me that the law that made Japanese internment camps possible remains good law, and even with all the collective shame about this episode of history, the legal structure can be slow or ineffective at removing the law once codified.

Basically, once you give up power to government and private industry, it's very difficult to take it back.  I think we have an assumption that we're all doing our best to work together, but these changes in surveillance and data collection may be with us for some time to come.


John Waters is a contributor to RealClearDefense. He practices law in Omaha, Nebraska.



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