Who Is Afraid Of Big Brother?

When you hear lots of rhetoric about Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, it’s worth reminding oneself that its themes are infinitely more dire than our current situation. The danger of the abuse of power is omni-present, but as Matthew Steinglass explains, the Orwellian metaphor is too drastic to explain our present unease:

It’s not the totalitarian fear that an agency that knows exactly where we are and who we’re talking to at all times would find it easier to round us up; we’re not a totalitarian state, and in any case, in modern America, if the police want to arrest you, they’ll be able to find you. The legitimate fear boils down to two things. The first is the possibility of illegitimate pressure based on information we didn’t intend to be made public. Everyone has secrets; everyone has things they’d prefer not be publicly known. … This problem is exacerbated by the fact that when we say “the government”, we are actually referring to huge numbers of different agencies and individuals, each of which have their own interests and will use whatever information resources they get their hands on to pursue those interests.

The second is the fear that a pattern of circumstantial activity will lead us to be falsely incriminated, or to suffer administrative penalties that don’t even require any actual indictment.

In the era of the no-fly list, it’s not clear what set of activities are enough to get you to pop up on somebody’s computer screen at DHS and turn your life into a Kafkaesque hassle-dome. Did you visit Qatar, then Pakistan, then Qatar again? Did you spray-paint artistic graffiti on a sidewalk that turned out to be too close to Dick Cheney’s daughter’s house? We don’t know; our security agencies will never tell us. Giving the NSA a vast database of phone calls, and inviting them to search for correlations that might be predictive of terrorist activity, is likely to generate a massive number of false positives.

John Sides notes that “most Americans do not express much anxiety about domestic surveillance”:

 In a recent article (gated), political scientists Samuel J. Best, Brian S. Krueger, and Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz reported the results of a 2007 survey in which they explicitly asked whether Americans were anxious, worried, or scared about “the government monitoring the activities of people like you.”  Only about 30% of Americans said that they were “somewhat” or “very” anxious, worried, or scared.  Best and colleagues note that this is more than some commentators and scholars have suggested.  The question, though, is whether it is “enough” to engender a backlash.  I have not seen comparable questions asked in more recent surveys, but my guess is that there is not a great deal more anxiety.

Many people I admire – from Conor to the Pet Shop Boys – find all this horrifying. I still don’t. Maybe it’s because what’s left of my own privacy was destroyed long ago; maybe it’s because I lived under government surveillance as a non-permanent resident for almost two decades. I had to constantly report where I lived, make sure my visa was always in good standing, and go before all-powerful immigration officials at least every three years. I’m now routinely taken aside for extra interviews whenever I enter the US (I’m told my name is on an Irish terrorist-suspect list, but who knows?) and I had to give the government a sample of my own blood in order to stay here. So apart from my blood, my address, my salary, and almost every detail of my professional and private life, I’ve been a free man. After that, maybe meta-data is never going to terrify me.