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What’s the Harm?

As the revealed extent of indiscriminate surveillance and data mining by the U.S. government slowly deepens and widens, the old Cold War defense is rearing its head again: “If you don’t have anything to hide, you don’t have anything to fear.” There are all sorts of broad philosophical problems with that kind of argument, but this morning I’m reflecting on the claim practically, from a personal perspective.

Ten years ago, while I was writing for Irregular Times, I also had a full-time job with an employer I won’t name in a position I also won’t name.  All I’ll say is that my job required that I take on a “value-neutral” position while at work and when interacting with those who paid for services with my employer.  As you know if you read Irregular Times regularly, I’m not a value-neutral person; I have strong beliefs about what is morally right and wrong, and I express them here at Irregular Times. 

Ten years ago, I thought I had a pretty good thing going. I didn’t discuss this website at work,  I didn’t discuss my work at the website, my nom-de-keyboard here at the time consisted of my first initial and middle name, and I assumed that this would protect me.  It didn’t.  Some people who don’t share the values I express here decided to investigate me after I refused their demands that I temper my writing to less offend them.  Using a combination of references to places I had visited and a “whois” search, they made the connection to my workplace and started barraging my supervisor with quotes of particularly controversial statements I’d made at Irregular Times.  “Did you know that one of your employees is saying this?”.  “Why does he think he has something to hide?”  The first wave of these challenges was dismissed; the second and third were not.  Although my supervisor tried his best to be supportive, this initiated a review of the content I’d written in my private life, there was a subtle stink at work, and it was a good thing that I was already planning to move on to a new community and new work.  I didn’t quite lose my job… it’s more that we mutually agreed I would be “transitioning out.”

Like most people I’m not made of money, so of course I looked for more work, and while doing so I had to think very carefully about how to prevent this sort of professional calamity in the future.  Should I stop writing for Irregular Times?  Change the content of what I wrote?  Try to convince my fellow writers to join the online mainstream and embrace the majority sentiments of the day? 

I seriously considered these options before rejecting them.  Instead, in my latest position — which I’ve never named here and am not liable to — I’ve taken pains to inform my supervisors formally of my outside activities from the first day of my work, even though it isn’t (and never has been) any of their business on paper.  At the same time, I have switched to using my first name in writing so that no one can raise a claim that I am “hiding” myself or being “secretive.”  It’s my hope, rather than my conviction, that such an approach will prevent further threats against my employment and by extension the livelihood of my family.

Disclosing my out-of-work activity to my employer hasn’t entirely stopped inquiries from coming in, because developments in technology have made it easier for people to find and follow connections.  Last year, while I was writing about the corporate-party presidential effort Americans Elect, a political operative long employed by one of the major parties called me a few times at work after connecting some sparsely strung-out dots.  Because he said he appreciated my efforts, the operative indicated he had no inclination to cause a stink at my workplace.  I was also shown documents (unfortunately on the condition that I not share them) indicating the Americans Elect corporation had someone do a bit of poking my way.  This is the cost of having something to say, and I’ll have to live with the uncertain possibility of someone causing trouble as long as my adult life continues to involve more than one kind of role.

When people toss out the phrase “If you don’t have anything to hide, you don’t have anything to fear,” they appeal to the sense that the things we might “hide” are matters of criminality or shame… but there are other sorts of matters we might “hide” for practical reasons, or perhaps simply keep separate because we have decided there are appropriate and inappropriate venues for our speech and behavior.  Are there aspects of your life most of us keep separate?  Of course there are.  When you’re in a business meeting, you don’t expect your mother to bust in and start calling you by the nicknames you had as a toddler.  When you’re sitting down for dinner with your spouse and children, I imagine the subject of your favorite sexual positions won’t be shared with helpings of pot roast.  These pieces of information are nothing to be ashamed of, but each has its domain.  Respect for such distinctions allows us to act more freely within each of the separate — not shameful, not “hidden,” not criminal, and certainly not terrorist domains of our lives.

In this context, do I fear a large, powerful institution (be it business or religion or government) that starts riffling through my private, password-protected communications, that quietly assumes for itself the right to connect the dots between the separate domains of my life, and that (as we’ve recently learned) believes it appropriate to start sharing what it finds with other agencies for their own purposes?  Yes, I do fear that — even though I have broken no law or committed any act of which I am ashamed.  I remember what happened when people breached the walls between different domains of my life, and I remember what the purpose of that breach was — to try and control my behavior and speech. 

When surveillance leaves no way for us to live away from scrutiny, when all lines of distinction in our lives are blurred by spying eyes, we will be faced with the choice between sharing everything about us with everyone and sharing nothing with anyone.  The first alternative is forced exhibitionism.  The second alternative is coerced conformity.  What’s the harm?  That’s the harm, and that’s why we need to raise a stink now, before the price of objection rises far too high.

13 thoughts on “What’s the Harm?”

  1. Charles Manning says:

    Very interesting essay. I don’t worry too much about things like comments on this site because no one I associate with locally knows what this site is, or that I’m writing for it. No one involved with my work has ever even brought up things on Facebook that mention me. I actually have a Facebook site which I use for my musical endeavors and will probably start using to post philosophical articles previously published in an obscure journal and that would be published nowhere else. But not one person in a thousand cares about my philosophical views.

    I think you put your finger on the legitimate concern about privacy. I never write or even talk about such things as preferred sexual positions in a way that might be monitored. Another concern is that one might be accused in a public way of sympathy for terrorists if one in any way describes terrorists as human beings. For example, it seems risky to note that the surviving Boston bomber did what he did out of expressed (sincere?) sympathy or empathy for innocents killed by U.S. military actions. Everything I write, I write on the assumption that somewhere people with the power to do me harm, especially government officials, who aren’t in sympathy with my views, are reading it. I’m not sure how to improve on that when terrorism is a real, although vastly over-estimated, threat.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking essay.

  2. briny says:

    “If you don’t have something to hide, you aren’t human.” Which is a basic starting point. I’m ex-career military and I had to maintain a non-existent political life while serving. Basic rights, freedom of speech, freedom of association, &c., do not exist while in uniform. We vote, speak about almost anything under the sun save politics, and that was that. Of course, this is a professional military which is quite distinct from what existed in or before Vietnam.

    Now when I left the military I immediately became a card-carrying member of the ACLU, Greenpeace (considered a terrorist organization even now), Nature Conservancy, and the Reason Institute. I’m most definitely not a Conservative, even a little ‘c’ kind. I’m also not a ‘Statist.’ I don’t trust the State! I worked for them. So now we turn up what the NSA has been doing which is patently unconstitutional and I more than ‘start to have a problem.’ When I was in uniform, you just didn’t do this shit and I was point blank told to never, ever repeat anything I even overheard thanks to all this gee-whiz electronics gear at my fingertips. Hell, I used to fix the NSA stuff when they couldn’t, so I knew exactly what they had and what they were doing since they were still doing it while I was fixing it. These capabilities are supposed to be kept on a leash, a leash held by a completely separate branch of government for a reason. And that reason is that it is all to easy, when such power is in the hands of the less than scrupulous, to misuse it. As you found out. As we are all still finding out, ever more, with every new document release.

    If you search on my name on Google, you’ll find me all over the place with a ton of hits. And by that, if you printed it out it’d way a ton. I am not shy about stating my opinions, of which I have a lot as I’m sure ya’ll will find out. Still, if I did have something that has no connection with any other aspect of my life, yet could be used against others (forget about blackmailing me ;-), I’d have a serious issue here. Whatever.

    That’s not what disturbs me the most, although it really should. Someone made a concerted effort to step around the safeguards on this power. Many (I haven’t kept track, most?) of the people in the NSA wear the ‘uniform’ which means they get the same seminars where we discuss what is ‘constitutional, moral, and legal’ when it comes to orders. It isn’t good enough to simply obey an order. You must obey it for the right reasons. That got into our heads when people wrapped their heads around Nuremburg and all the evil done in Vietnam. [We can talk about our current government evil acts later.] Let me repeat that, seminars. So why are all those people in uniform letting this go on? One, I seriously doubt they had the whole picture and given recent attempts at censoring their access to press accounts, may still not have. Not likely, but possible.

    No, it was that the NSA and the other pieces of government made a conscious decision to use contractors to carry out the ‘dirty work.’ Neatly side-steps all us card-carrying constitutionalists in uniform, doesn’t it. And now that they’ve been caught with their hands in the cookie jar, what do we see? The start of a ‘discussion’ on a ‘framework’ for future monitoring. Yeah, right. Nothing to discuss in my not so humble opinion. And their cutting down on the kinds of contractors, but only 90% of them and only those that are a direct threat to their little (big?) conspiracy. Not enough. Not nearly enough.

    Just an aside: I don’t have anywhere near a problem with what’s happening to PFC Manning as I do with Ed Snowden. Why? The former was in uniform and the rules are different. In uniform you work for the government under the laws of the military. You have to realize that they book will get thrown at you at supersonic speed and expect it.

    Mr. Snowden was not in uniform. He is a citizen even while he was a contract worker with the US Government. As a citizen, the US Government WORKS for Mr. Snowden, not the other way around. Get the difference? I thought you would.

    BTW; Brian J. Bartlett if y’all want to do a search. And if you’re the NSA, look on your nuclear security clearance list. That’s why y’all had me fixing your stuff rather than the other way around.

  3. Overreactioncat says:

    You guys are frankly overreacting to this Prism stuff.

    In fact, it was so much worse not so long ago. The FISA Amendment of 2008, while it had its flaws, did basically begin to close a door on a really nasty time for the oversight of our nation’s intelligence communities. Post-9/11, the NSA was basically off the leash entirely. The FISA court might be rubber stamping warrants, but at least there are warrants and some semblance of oversight. Before that there was pretty much no check on it. Until the New York Times began to report on the issue in 2005, the NSA was engaged in truly heinous levels of unchecked information gathering against terror suspects, or pretty much just anyone they felt like, regardless of where they were from and what they were doing, no warrants required. In 2007, two former analysts, Adrienne Kinne and David Murfee Faulk, came forward to blogger Daniel Swanson (and later spoke to Bamford for his book) stating that they and other NSA analyst used to listen in on phone sex chats being held between soldiers stationed abroad and their significant others back home. They detailed that all restrictions on spying on Americans were waived by presidential (or vice-presidential) order since 9/11 (possibly earlier). These were whistleblowers detailing actual abuse of the system.

    I’ll note that Snowden and Glenn Greenwald’s many revelations about the NSA have yet to actually reveal any criminal activity! Everything they have detailed has been legal. Kinne and Faulk revealed actual abuses and caused change to be instigated, but hardly anyone remembers them. And they aren’t rotting in a prison cell somewhere right now either; rather, they remain free citizens.

    The basic rules regarding who and what the NSA can listen in on remained waived until the passage of the FISA Amendment in 2008. While that bill was flawed and far from perfect, it did re-establish a sense of the rule of law on the NSA’s programs. Warrantless wiretapping was ended, the barriers keeping the NSA from spying on Americans and other US persons without just cause were reinstated. Since then, the pattern has actually been for more restrictions placed on the NSA, not fewer. While the technology improves faster than the legislation to govern it can be crafted or passed, progress has been made. In 2011, Obama ended a massive email metadata collection program that had been going on for 10 years (starting under Dick Cheney’s orders). Apparently the Obama administration decided the program was too invasive and provided little value for the cost.

    Obama also signed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which makes it easier for federal employees to report waste, fraud and abuse of government programs, including at intelligence services. This gave additional protections to whistleblowers, putting some teeth back into the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act, which had been cut to pieces by court decisions narrowing the definition of a whistleblower and what information they could be protected for revealing. Obama also sent through Presidential Policy Directive 19 in 2012, which extends legal protections for whistleblowers with access to classified information (before folks jump on this, mind that Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden do not meet any kind of legal definition of a “whistleblower.” The former indiscriminately dumped bails of documents, while the latter has failed to report any actual abuse and has only described what are currently completely legal programs).

    By noting these points, I’m by no means defending Obama’s record on NSA surveillance activities. There is still woefully little oversight into their programs, and if there were abuse of the system we would hard pressed to prove it. That said, the last time there was serious abuse of the system, during the Bush administration, whistleblowers came forward to document this. And as legal protections for whistleblowers have only improved, we can assume there is likely nothing like the systemic abuse happening now that was so notable during the Bush years (again, remember that Snowden has only revealed the details of legal programs; he has yet to document a single instant of these programs being abused). We need to mesh America’s very real need for foreign surveillance programs with our need to keep a close eye on an agency with an incredible amout of technical power. Obama has not made it significantly better, but he also has not made it significantly worse (regardless of what some people new to this debate might think; too many people out there who don’t realize that American politics happens even when they don’t pay attention).

    1. Jim Cook says:

      Hello, Overreactioncat. I encourage you to read our “surveillance” set of articles here, which actually aren’t all new but rather stretch back some years. A particularly interesting historical note given the current focus on new revelations regarding PRISM is this article from 2008, which notes the discussion of “omnibus” search of internet traffic with the use of “filters.”

      I think the question of whether an activity is legal is possibly interesting, but less interesting than the question of whether an activity is a good idea. I’m unconvinced that there is a “very real need” for the United States to exert the powers it currently does. If there is such a “very real need,” then there surely is a hundred-fold greater justification for the outlawing of McDonalds and Burger King.

      1. J Clifford says:

        Overreactioncat, you write, “The FISA court might be rubber stamping warrants, but at least there are warrants and some semblance of oversight”.

        Two points on this:

        1) According to the Constitution (which is, rather than the FISA Amendments Act and the Patriot Act, the highest law of the land and the final source for decisions on what’s legal and what’s not), the rubber stamp approval of massive electronic spying against Americans does not count as a warrant. The Fourth Amendment sets the standard for what is a warrant and what is not: “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized”

        The National Security Agency military spying organization is searching and seizing people’s persons and papers without probable cause.

        The NSA is not particularly describing the place to be searched.

        The NSA is not particularly describing the persons or things to be seized.

        Therefore, these FISA rubber stamps are not warrants.

        2) There is a semblance only of the thinnest veneer of oversight. For years, Obama has prevented the hand-picked, pro-surveillance members of the oversight committee from ever holding a meeting!

        Even this semblance is only a semblance. We don’t need a “some semblance of oversight”. We need government transparency. There is no constitutional basis for these secrets. Show me where in the Constitution it says that the Executive Branch has the right to conduct secret spying on the people.

        Your pseudonym should be Acceptsbigbrotherwithasmilecat.

  4. Dave says:

    “… a large, powerful institution … connect[ing] the dots between the separate domains of my life … sharing what it finds with other agencies for their own purposes.”

    Would that concern extend to the coming loss of medical privacy under Obamacare? Get ready.

    I understood your post as expressing a concern for privacy, and another way to say it might be that criminal activity, when exposed, brings judgement under the law, private activity, when exposed, brings judgement from public opinion. The real danger here is that connecting the dots, for our contemporary government I think, is not about searching for criminal activity so much as politically incorrect activity. A terrorist cell, if it will suit political purposes, may at times be an acceptable risk, but a Green Party or Tea Party or Irregular Times person, if at times getting in the way, can be brought down with information, no matter how innocuous it seems. It is intimidating to think about and I believe they mean for it to be so.

    Ooh! This just in. One might understand the Pentagon as a symbol of power the whole world understands. See a pentagon anywhere and it has this subconscious power. I wonder what shape the datacenter being constructed in Utah (and much larger than the Pentagon) will take. Hmmm.

    1. Jim Cook says:


      Could you point to the language in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that removes medical privacy?

  5. Dave says:

    Jim, can one point to the language in the PPACA that protects medical privacy? Watch for Murphy’s law in action.

    J.Clifford posted this recently: “The National Security Agency routinely violates its own rules that are supposed to restrict its electronic surveillance activities.” Determining elegibilty under Obamacare will be in the domain of the I) R, -ss –pardon the crude encryption- one of many government agencies that routinely prove that they cannot be trusted with your personal info. As I said, get ready. The Medicare folks are already proposing info sharing on a behemoth scale.

    1. Jim Cook says:

      Thanks for writing back.

      1. “Watch Murphy’s law in action” isn’t a sufficient explanation. By that standard any organization that doesn’t have a privacy policy is violating your privacy — things will go wrong!

      2. The truth is that there is already a health care privacy law in place — it’s called HIPAA, and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act does NOT undo it.

      3. Look up “Internal Revenue Service” in the PPACA. It appears twice. One provision regarding nursing homes — the PPACA allows nursing homes to use already existing (and already public, so no invasion of privacy) IRS Form 990s as reporting forms for participation in PPACA provisions. The other provision mentioning “Internal Revenue Service” says that all taxpayers will receive a notice in the mail reminding them that the health care insurance exchanges exist. I cannot find any provision in the PPACA that declares the IRS will be in charge of determining eligibility. Could you share that language in the PPACA with me?

      Which specific language in the bill is a privacy problem, and what’s the specific privacy problem with it?

  6. Dave says:

    Jim, I’m not aware of specific language in the Act that provides for privacy or compromises it, any more than I can recite which provision of a different Act directs any agency to collect and read my email.

    A column in USA Today (I know, I know) from Dec. 6, 2012 by Stephen Parente and Paul Howard – could be a Vegas act I suppose – at least has said it the way I wish I had. Data from several agencies will be gathered in a centralised hub which will “achieve what has, until now, only appeared in pulp thrillers: a central database linking critical State and Federal data on every U.S. Citizen for real-time access.” Hackable too, I suppose.

    I just don’t believe for a minute that the political enemies of Joe the dogcatcher who’s now running for a higher office will not know about the STD he picked up on that trip to the islands last year. Can you tell me why he should be optimistic?

    1. Jim Cook says:

      No, no reason to be optimistic, but no reason to be pessimistic either. As you’ve noted, there is no language in the act regarding medical privacy. On STDs, doctors have been required to report cases to government authorities for many, many decades now, and the federal CDC aggregates state-level reports — so if Joe Dogcatcher’s been catching crabs and the government is inevitably a dataleaker, we should have heard about it by now.

      I’m not saying that violations of medical privacy would not be serious. I’m only saying that such violations under “Obamacare” are entirely hypothetical, with explicit legal protections under HIPAA to prevent this. By contrast, violations of the 4th Amendment through massive NSA warrantless surveillance are demonstrably actual, with an erosion of legal protections from unreasonable warrantless searches and seizures

  7. Dave says:

    Catching crabs. That was a hoot!

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