My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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meandering thoughts on the NSA scandal

As an activist, a geek, and a privacy scholar, I’ve been watching the NSA scandal unfold with a mixture of curiosity, outrage, and skepticism. I don’t feel as though I have enough information yet to make an informed opinion about exactly what the State is doing or how tech companies are involved, let alone the implications of these procedures. But one thing I do know is that most Americans are going to shrug their shoulders and move on while most of my friends are going to rally for increased transparency, governmental oversight, corporate commitments to resist governmental abuse, and efforts to better inform the public. And although I share all of their values and desires, I also feel the need to reflect on why I think that our activism as it is currently constructed is not going to rally the mainstream.

Whenever I asked my British grandfather any ethical question about his military service, I received one consistent reply: “for God and country.” He was a bomber pilot. And as a young activist, I couldn’t understand how he could table any ethics questions that way. So many innocent people died as a byproduct of his efforts to kill off Nazis. I never doubted the value of his service, but didn’t he every wonder about the random people who were killed in the process? No. “For God and country.”

I’m consistently amazed by how many Americans, who distrust the State’s “socialist” agenda, are fully supportive of any effort by the State to protect citizens from “terrorists” and other perceived miscreants. All too often, this is often cloaked in prejudicial language, focused on a narrative of “them” that is marked as other because of race, ethnicity, or religion. Ironically, even though it’s discussed as being about citizens vs. the other, naturalized citizens and children of naturalized citizens often get categorized as the other when their race, ethnicity, or religion is part of the broader feared other.

Embedded in this desire to be protected from the other is people’s belief that the State will never use sweeping power to surveil them or their friends, only the other. Some people recognize that they may end up in the large databases, but they assume they’ll be thrown away because they’re irrelevant. And besides, they’ve done nothing wrong. They have nothing to hide. Christianity often plays a role here, as people feel as though they’re already being watched and judged for their actions. And this is how we get back to “for God and country.”

When people view the State – or its military – as being a source of good to protect the populace from evil, they’re often willing to accept that actions will be taken to enhance security that may result in surveillance. They don’t necessarily see this as a trade-off between civil liberties and security because they don’t think that they’ll feel any restriction on *their* civil liberties. Rather, only people who’ve done something wrong will. And thus anyone who does feel a restriction on civil liberties must be doing something wrong.

On the flipside, I’m always astonished by how normative surveillance is in poverty-stricken communities. Surveillance is common place and many poor people are used to having to fork over tremendous amounts of personal information to get social services. And, in communities defined by practices like “stop and frisk,” the idea of not being watched and targeted is completely alien. So when these groups find out that the State is monitoring mediated interactions, why should they be surprised? Why should they react? From their perspective, it’s just another tool for the State to do what they’ve always been doing, only perhaps without the direct costs to dignity that many of these people face on a regular basis.

So who will be outraged? Who will be shocked? Who will be surprised? Mostly, I expect, my friends. All told, my friends are a highly educated, highly connected, highly privileged lot who are passionate about changing the world through making, educating, research, and activism. By and large, my friends’ only negative interactions with law enforcement are through protesting or other efforts to stand up to The Man. They expect civil liberties to protect them as they push for causes that they believe are just. They know (at least in theory) that the legal process is broken for less privileged people, but they still expect that it’ll work for them. Or they at least believe that they can call on their networks to bail them out, publicize their case, and generally support them to right any wrong. They have a widespread faith in fairness and justice, even when they’re fighting to combat inequality and injustice.

No activist wants to hear about secret abuses of power because it tilts the playing field, rendering challenges to the status quo even more difficult. Even when those very same activists have a healthy paranoia and believe that their foes are secretly abusing power. But “proof” is different. “Proof” is a rallying call, a justification for long-standing and difficult efforts to speak truth to power. “Proof” reinforces one’s beliefs, while also serving as fuel for being angry that more people don’t get angry. But it also blinds people from seeing why others don’t necessarily jump on their bandwagon because of their own values, beliefs, and assumptions.

I’m glad that my friends are energized and determined to fight harder to make a more just world. And I understand why they’re scared and angry by the potential of what’s being revealed. We’re all easy targets to watch because we’re loudspoken and we extensively use technology to coordinate our change-making efforts. And our networks are full of people who are politically suspect. Particularly activists, hackers, and foreign nationals from problematic nations. In many ways, we’re more the targets of the panopticon than so-called terrorists. Because destabilizing our privilege and belief in justice means that we can be controlled by fear. And so while I suspect that my friends will continue to speak of civil liberties and marginalized peoples, I can’t help but wonder if these kinds of revelations have more implications for activists than for anyone else. And if that’s the case, then what?

Update 9 June 2013 @ 5:53PM: Today, Edward Snowden revealed that he is a patriotic American and the NSA whistleblower. This is most likely going to change every aspect of what unfolds, how the American public reacts, and what the long term implications of this story are.  But, at this point, it’s hard to tell exactly where the chips will fall. I am hopeful that this means more people will engage. At the same time, I’m even more afraid for my activist friends. But I don’t yet have the foggiest clue of what the implications of all of this will mean.

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9 comments to meandering thoughts on the NSA scandal

  • Danah, I love reading your thoughts on privacy… and this recent NSA development.

    Thank you for sharing them.

  • tz

    The surveilance in China to find any second pregnancy so they can force an abortion is not being done by Christians, and neither Stalin nor Mao were “Christians”.

    Christendom’s mistake was to build a very just government – our declaration, constitution, and the Founding Fathers (with the exception of about 3 actual Deists) derived from Christianity, and Lord Action was a christian who said Power tends to Corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Christians believe in man’s fallen nature, not his perfectability.

    Having created places of liberty and prosperity, they forgot WHY they were free and wealthy – they mistook the small, limited, but fair government being referee among men to keep them playing the game fairly for a player that would win games. But the shadow lasts a long time as the christian perspective is perverted from preventing evil to the attempt to do good.

    You will bother about surveilance today, but what about socialized medicine? Social security? The EPA and endangered species act (that breaches the 5th amendment preventing you from using your property without any compensation). Or the 2nd amendment.

    If you wonder why no one cares about YOUR rights, it is because you are willing to give up 9 rights you don’t value and find utility in government oppression, and only complain when it is YOUR right being violated.

    I don’t remember any geek rage over the calls for “gun control” after Sandyhook.

    The naturalist technocrats accept that “you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette”. And it is only when your eggs start getting cracked.

    They came property, but you didn’t have any property with spotted owls and snail darters, so you appaluded.

    They came for guns, but you didn’t own any so you applauded.

    They came with threats and surveilance, and there wasn’t any ability left to object, so you nervously applaud and hope they won’t arrest, blackmail, extort, or expose you.

    Face it. Geeks want a big, abusive, corrupt government, but then want all the coercion, force, intimidation and abuse to serve their needs and not bite them. But the reality is there are no angels available – Christians believe in them but not that we can find one to govern. And there are few men who can retain their honor, but the Geeks voted for Obama over Ron Paul.

    In EVERY OTHER AREA EXCEPT THIS, geeks are as bad or worse than any other group at wanting big government and giving up “someone else’s” liberties.

    If you truly want to stop the abuses, and value liberties, then start with the liberties of others. ALL liberties. The constitution in the original intent. We need to slay leviathan, instead of trying to figure out how to bridle and ride it.

    Are you with me and the other constitutionalists or not?

  • I don’t think many people I know (drawing largely from the privileged / activist class) were surprised about the government part of the news. Of course that’s what the NSA would be doing – why not, if that’s the path that has been laid out since 2001 and made clearer in the FISA amendments debate of 2008?

    What /was/ interesting, or sadder, was the (reported) complicitly of the companies mentioned. Now, after the retractions and retroactive fact-checking from WaPo, it sounds like that wasn’t so scary as previously imagined. Just a secure lockbox for routine (but highly common, highly extensive, still-disturbing) FISA requests and the like. The other ‘story’ was a different matter altogether.

    Is that even worse, if the thought of a pervasive, ever hungry government information-maw sparks no new surprise?

  • Jessa Florence

    I swear I’m not trying to put you in the “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN???” box, but it’s interesting to me to think about how kids will or won’t react to this. When I teach college students, they’ve very clearly been trained to talk about (although not necessarily believe) tropes about how they can’t post whatever they want on FB because it could damage their reputation with future employers. With some poking around, it seems that those messages have a number of sources – parents, popular media, maybe even coursework (giving that I teach in a tech-related field). So to what extent will this type of surveillance also get internalized and processed? And what kinds of self-monitoring behaviors will emerge?

  • “And so while I suspect that my friends will continue to speak of civil liberties and marginalized peoples, I can’t help but wonder if these kinds of revelations have more implications for activists than for anyone else. And if that’s the case, then what?”

    Then it is given to us to act. I am coming to the view that figures like Swartz and Snowden are saints of a sort and part of their purpose seems to be to spark action on the part of the rest of us.

  • Jim Walker

    I watched the CNN interview with Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, and learned that he is 29 and a technician who works for a contractor. He reports that setting at his desk in Hawaii he could gain access to the email and phone records of anyone in the US, including the president. With a reported 850,000 people with secret to top secret clearance I worry more about someone like Snowden using access to the information for criminal activities or spying.
    As Daniel Ellsberg commented on the CNN report about Snowden, can someone be charged with a crime if the government is in violation of the 4th amendment?

  • rootlesscosmo

    I’m consistently amazed by how many Americans, who distrust the State’s “socialist” agenda, are fully supportive of any effort by the State to protect citizens from “terrorists” and other perceived miscreants. All too often, this is often cloaked in prejudicial language, focused on a narrative of “them” that is marked as other because of race, ethnicity, or religion.

    I think the apparent inconsistency–distrust of the “Socialist” State, support for intrusive State measures aimed at “protection”–is often explainable in terms of the belief that the “socialist” agenda favors Others. That is, the State isn’t objectionable as a matter of general libertarian (or anarchist) principle, but because the State is seen as forcing “us” to subsidize “them.” “We” dn’t want the State to compel us top pay for “welfare;” “we” approve aggressive police practices toward people of color who are perceived as the beneficiaries of “welfare.” “We” don’t want to pay for State-provided reproductive health services for women; “we” want to tighten State-enforced restrictions on women’s reprodyuctive choices. There’s inconsistency only if you assume a general principle is at work, rather than a frankly partticularist view of social life as being divided between “us”–the historian Alexander Saxton wrote of the “white republic”–and everyone else, Mitt Romney’s 47% of idlers and parasites.

  • Goupil

    So we will see a pseudo battle between republicans and democrats about privacy and constitution.
    Meanwhile the big financial interests will carry on building, spying, copying trade secrets and so on. Maybe the free trade agreement talks between the US and Europe will be delayed or better scuppered ( I doubt it) Don’t mes-estimate the inefficiency infighting and stupidity of the power that be. At the other end of the scale my company is more and more peopled by fascists nearly all the left leaning people are fired.

  • Brian O' Hanlon

    Wow, 160 comments or something on LinkedIn. Clearly these new platforms or spaces, or whatever label wants to give to them, are really huge data gathering machines . . . like a factor of 10X bigger than blogs ever were.

    (Of course, Shirky, Winer etc would have argued that comments are dumb where blogs are concerned)

    http://many.corante.com/archives/2007/07/20/spolsky_on_blog_comments_scale_matters.php

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