Kid Brother Surveillance

Be aware of your actions in this age of surveillance

Fresno Bee, May 2, 2014

We live in an age of constant surveillance, where our words and actions can be made public by anyone with a cellphone and an Internet connection. In the old days, morality was enforced with the thought that God was watching. In the era of totalitarian states, God was replaced by Big Brother.

Today, surveillance has become democratic, as each of us has the power to record and publicize the misdeeds of anyone we meet. Big Brother has been replaced by a billion kid brothers who keep sticking their cameras into other people’s business.

Secret recordings have exposed some egregious stuff. The racist comments of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling were exposed in this way. A few weeks earlier, a Golden State Warriors assistant coach was fired for making secret recordings of his team.

In 2011, an NPR employee was caught saying that tea party activists are xenophobic racists. Also in 2011, President Obama and former French President Sarkozy were caught speaking privately about their dislike for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2012, a secret recording of Mitt Romney caught him saying that 47% of the public were dependent on the government.

The law provides some protection against clandestine recording. But once the cat is out of the bag, the law won’t fix a damaged reputation. It is hard to hide anything in the era of crowd-sourced, pocket-sized surveillance. Racists, sexists, adulterers, and crooks should know that in the Facebook era, your bad deeds are only a click away.

While we might question the motives of the kid brother snoops, there is no denying their power and the serious loss of privacy this creates. But prying eyes can force us to behave ourselves. Whatever you say or do — in a business meeting, on the golf course, or online — can end up being made public.

One solution is simply to avoid saying or doing dumb and immoral stuff; and don’t be a hypocrite. We ought to behave — even in private — in ways that we are proud to affirm. We ought to avoid saying and doing those sorts of things that get the gossips talking and the cameras recording. If you wouldn’t say it in public, then don’t say it at all.

Hypocrites change their speech and behavior to fit their audience. Hypocrisy rests upon a tangled web of lies, masks, secret alliances, inside jokes, winks, and nods. Hypocrites say and do things in private that they condemn in public and vice versa. Gossipy snoops love to expose hypocrisy.

Justice Louis Brandeis once suggested that publicity is the remedy for social diseases. He said, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” While this idea is often used to call for greater transparency in government, we forget that sunlight is an equal opportunity enlightener. We are all being observed and recorded all the time.

This is a bit scary. But kid brother surveillance does make it harder to keep immoral behavior and vicious ideas hidden. Some citizens are even turning the cameras on Big Brother himself. Earlier this year, someone smuggled a video recorder into the U.S. Supreme Court, which was the first time the court had ever been recorded. And camera phones have been used to record police brutality.

The prying eyes of a kid brother with a microphone can be irritating to those who value privacy. Sometimes we just want to be left alone. And liberty seems to require zones of privacy. Unfortunately, while it might be nice to imagine retreating to a world of pre-electronic privacy, the cell-cam Rubicon has already been crossed. One consolation is to recall that the good old days were also full of racism, sexism and other hypocritical diseases that fester in private places.

Kid brother surveillance means that privacy is a lost dream. Everyone you meet is armed with a camera. The constant threat of public exposure makes it harder for the hypocrites and racists to hide. The downside is that we each have to confront our own hypocrisies. Each of us now has the capacity to act as our brother’s moral keeper. But we ought to first take a selfie, before we turn the camera on someone else.

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Who can be trusted with our secrets?

July 12, 2013

The news about government surveillance and secrecy is alarming. But it is not surprising. Governments have always been interested in controlling information. But democratic governments should be limited in their ability to do so.

Managing information is the primary occupation of many people — in social networks, in business, in sports, in religion, and in politics. When information is scarce, the demand for it goes up. That’s why it’s possible to leverage information for profit — which explains blackmail, insider trading and treason.

Social life consists of a complex game of exchanging information. The best players have a knack for obtaining and revealing information in appropriate ways. And governments have an interest in controlling the process.

Secrets are valuable, and there is power in knowing them. We value those who can keep confidences. And we threaten and punish those who disclose them. But the urge to divulge is often as strong as the desire to know. The joy of the tattletale and the blabbermouth is complemented by the curiosity of the eavesdropper and Peeping Tom. Gossip is as much fun to tell as it is to hear.

There is also satisfaction in keeping a secret. We gain a sense of superiority from knowing something that others do not know. Community develops from the loyalty and trust found among those who keep each other’s confidences. There is solidarity among those who share secrets. We like to receive that sly wink or subtle nod from those “in the know.” No one wants to be left out of the loop.

But secretiveness can be dangerous. Cabals and cults indoctrinate members by revealing secret mysteries. Magical power supposedly flows from access to esoteric knowledge. People are often willing to pay dearly to see what is concealed.

The need for secrecy is often a sign of something rotten. Perverts lurk in the shadows. Criminals whisper conspiratorially. Con men and swindlers manipulate information. Delinquents conceal their misdeeds. And cheating lovers arrange clandestine meetings.

The great American philosopher Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “there must be some narrowness in the soul that compels one to keep secrets.” Good and virtuous things are not done surreptitiously. If we are proud of what we do and who we are, we should do it publicly.

A virtuous personality has no need to weave the tangled webs of deceit that cramp the soul. And a virtuous person has no need to pry into the private lives of others. Speak your mind. Be yourself. Leave others the privacy they deserve.

So much for individuals. But we often make exceptions for government spying and secrecy because we feel it is necessary for law and order. In order to uncover criminal conspiracies, the government may have to secretly surveil the bad guys. But one always wonders, who is watching the watchers.

The philosopher Plato solved that problem by maintaining that the rulers had to be wise and virtuous. Plato assumed that the majority of people were not virtuous enough to govern themselves. But he hoped that a wise and virtuous ruler could be empowered to manipulate and deceive us, for our own good.

Democrats, in the philosophical sense of that term, reject that idea. Democrats tend to think that governments ought to be transparent, because there is no good reason to believe that the watchers are wiser or more virtuous than we are. Democrats reject the idea that governments should be granted exceptional powers. And they believe that government should respect the liberty and privacy of individuals. As Thoreau put it, “that government is best which governs least.”

Individual privacy matters, from the point of view of democracy, because the freedom to keep and tell secrets is such an essential feature of our social lives. But governments ought not keep secrets. If we don’t know what the government is doing on our behalf, how can we claim to be governing ourselves?

Some fear that bad guys will exploit democratic liberty and transparency. They will want to empower the surveillance state as Plato did, for the good of the whole. But followers of Thoreau may suspect that growing state surveillance and secrecy indicates an undemocratic narrowing of the soul of the nation.