Skip to main content

Speech Under Surveillance

As the discussion of the NSA's surveillance program continues, it's important to reflect on the role privacy plays in a free society. As analysts and experts debate the scope and degree of access, the PRISM leak shows us that our communications and personal information are vulnerable. Even if no one is in fact listening, reading, or tracking, someone might be, so we cannot assume that any information transmitted over any communication network or held by any third party is safe from scrutiny.

Why does this level of scrutiny make us feel less free? For one, with the loss of privacy comes the loss of a little bit of autonomy. Agree or disagree with prevailing social norms, when in public there is a clear pressure to conform to them. In private, a person can shrug off that pressure and act solely on his or her own judgment. Privacy theorists from John Stuart Mill to Tim Scanlon emphasize the freedom of the private sphere as an important proving ground for developing a sense of autonomy, an important ingredient of freedom.

I find the autonomy argument interesting, but I don't think it stops there. Considering the current situation, the principal concern is not the fully private domain, but the domain of information shared between individuals. Free speech and free association entails the ability to share what we want with whom we want. I can share my opinions on a political candidate with a sympathetic friend but not with a colleague I don't want to antagonize. This kind of discretion is important both for protecting ourselves from other people's biases and for providing a safe space for discussion and exchange.

When all of our communications are subject to eavesdropping, we lose that safe space. I no longer feel secure in disclosing my opinions even to trusted friends. As a society, we stop speaking to each other about anything of substance, anything that might invite suspicion, investigation, or persecution. Each person becomes an isolate island of opinion, a seemingly tiny mote of dissent in an ocean of uneasy acquiescence. A democratic society is only healthy if citizens are talking to one another, debating law and policy, and recognizing their important role as constituents of the state.

As third-party service providers like Google have increasing control and custody of our information, we need to focus on how to keep maintain privacy of our personal information and our communications. In current policy, third party custodians present a vulnerability because there is an assumption that without some explicit or established confidentiality agreement, any information we turn over to a third party does not carry a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Since it doesn't seem like we're going to stop using Google anytime soon, it will become increasingly important to demand that our information-management services carry strong privacy or confidentiality guarantees. Google's call for transparency in the PRISM debate has been a good sign. While lots of our data runs through Google's hands, they seem to have a sense of stewardship over that information. Of course, if the NSA has back doors or is intercepting information during transmission, Google's policies may serve as only a thin protection.


Popular posts from this blog

RPG Systems: An Analogy with UI Design

The current game in our weekly role-playing group is Deadlands. The previous game was Shadowrun. Both rule systems lie closer to the “chunky” side of the spectrum. Shadowrun has a particular reputation for its complex and somewhat cumbersome rules, and while Deadlands has less overall complexity, the system has a degree of granularity that interrupts play more often than it enhances narration. I enjoy role-playing games because I like participating in a good story. The rules system provides a set of constraints for the characters, the setting, and the conflicts. They help give the narrative structure, a background against which the story will take place. Too few rules, and telling an interesting and well-developed story becomes difficult. Too many rules tend to get in the way of individual scenes or events. With the right balance, it’s possible for the game master, usually me, to be sufficiently fluent in the rules system to resolve any conflict without extended consultation of on

Some Thoughts on Dharma Decline

Many of these blog entries have concerned my main research in political philosophy, intellectual property and technology. Now for something a little different, I thought I would write up some thoughts on another area of interest: Buddhism. For those who don't know, I've taught courses in Buddhism since I began teaching, having learned a great deal from my undergraduate advisor, Donald Hanks, and Ashok Aklujkar, a now-retired professor of Indian languages, literature and philosophy for whom I served as teaching assistant during my time at UBC. Thanks to their instruction, I developed a solid knowledge of the Indian Buddhist tradition, and I've used what they taught me to deepen and develop that knowledge to improve my teaching and my personal meditation practice. While I don't want to write a full tutorial on Buddhist thought, I would like to discuss a notion that prevails in some traditions, and that discussion will require one to know a few basic ideas. At its cor

Justifications for Intellectual Property Part 1: Utilitarianism

There is no way this tutorial series would be complete without some discussion of justifications for intellectual property. While not necessarily a matter of law, some knowledge of the philosophical foundations will provide a better sense of the values at stake in intellectual property debates. Notice, for instance, that the tutorials on fair use were punctuated with appeals to values, social goods, and individual rights. Without an understanding of the moral and political framework against which the law stands, one can very easily find oneself in a stalemate, with one value pitted against another and no way of deciding which should prevail. To understand the jurisprudence around intellectual property rights, one has to have some idea of the justifying theories to which attorneys and judges appeal in their arguments and decisions. So, without further ado, let's get to the tutorial. There are three main ways of justifying intellectual property rights: the Utilitarian theory, th