Boston University

Mass Surveillance + Populism = A Threat to Public Safety and Democracy by Lukas McMahon @Boston University

A free, liberal democracy should not spy on its citizens. But the United States does, and it may continue to indefinitely, which puts its citizens at risk of persecution — especially with the rise of American populism.

A bi-partisan coalition of 12 representatives proposed “The USA Liberty Act” (H.R. 3839) on October 6, 2017 to renew Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. Section 702 allows the government to spy on communications between US citizens and foreigners without a warrant.

In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) used this broad permission to collect information on countless US targets, as well as foreign citizens and governments. The NSA tapped phone calls, text messages, and emails — all of which are stored in searchable databases. These databases are frequently accessed by the FBI  during domestic investigations; which means that the FBI has access to private information of US citizens that is applicable in court, but obtained without a warrant.

Section 702 expires on December 31 of this year, but only if the USA Liberty Act fails to pass. Unfortunately, the Trump administration strongly favors the bill. Upholding 702 infringes on Americans’ 4th amendment rights — but slyly, quietly. Perhaps this outcome isn’t ideal, but it could be worse, right?

Wrong. It’s a public safety issue. Because today’s technology can collect more information with less data than ever before. For example, smartphone applications can match faces with social profiles with 70 percent accuracy. A recent study at Stanford University found that computers could predict someone’s sexual orientation with as high as 81 percent accuracy, significantly more accurate than humans, just by analyzing their face. Facebook, Amazon, and Google algorithms can predict and track your buying habits, and they aren’t the only entities with this ability.

Essentially, the government has the capability to learn who you talk to, when you talk to them, where you are, your sexual orientation, and what you’re interested in from a single email. Renewing Section 702 makes this kind of surveillance increasingly likely. That information could make “undesirable” groups for the political elite easy targets for arrest or harassment.

But this could already happen, and it isn’t happening, so why should we worry? Why not renew Section 702 and keep business as usual?

Because populism is on the rise, and it doesn’t play nicely with a stable, trustworthy, liberal democracy.

According to Jan-Werner Müller in What is Populism?, populism is inherently tribal and majoritarian: it demonizes out-groups, delegitimizes its opposition, and takes frames any actions against its interests as crisis. Populism also has a history of discriminatory legalism and suppression of civil society.

Donald Trump and the populist right won power in 2016 and have already changed the political landscape to resemble Müller’s theoretical populist regime. Trump blamed political elites for the country’s woes — even after he took office. Polarization is getting worse by the day as well. Opponents are “un-american” and critics are “fake news.” Hysteria dominates the news cycles and minorities are afraid for their safety at the hands of law enforcement.

In this political climate, any sensible citizen would limit the government’s ability to collect private information, especially when that information may make them an enemy of the state in the future. Opponents to populism are labeled as immoral, and are could be identified by their ethnicity, religion, employment, or sexual orientation. Ultimately, populism is naturally authoritarian — eroding democratic institutions and threatening democracy itself.

Democratic backsliding happens slowly, with small concessions building into large ones; those in power collect and centralize more power over time. Information is power.

To protect our freedom, it’s imperative to restrict the government’s access to private information to protect it from being used maliciously against us.


Image Source: Scott Webb (Unsplash) Creative Commons Zero License

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