The ex-CIA employee, Edward Snowden who exposed the extent to which the security agencies of the United States of America and her allies intrude on the lives of their citizens raises the specter of the decline of the open society as we know it. But, it’s been a gradual decline-one that has slowly crept upon us with all the stealth and acuity of a spy coming in from the cold. Snowden’s exposure of governmental surveillance of ordinary people indicates they were gathering millions upon millions of data relating to personal phone calls and internet activities for years. Mobile phones were/are tapped, internet surveillance and snooping through Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo was/is de rigueur, and a secret court once ordered phone companies to hand over millions of its confidential records.
These governmental agencies hunt through the electronic communications of their citizenry like the vast fleets of illegal fishing vessels which trawl our deep-seas, reaping havoc in their attempts to gain a few choice species of fish for the tables of those fortunate enough to be able to afford to pay for them. Often tens of thousands of species are killed and thrown back into our oceans to rot and further pollute our once abundant, pristine oceans.
Western democratic governments argue a case for National Security and the avoidance of terrorist attacks as a justification for these extraordinary breaches of privacy through electronic surveillance. Unlike their totalitarian and pseudo-democratic counter-parts, who just invade the privacy and rights of their citizens on a daily basis-the West attempts to take the high moral ground arguing that in monitoring everyone, everyone will be safer. But how much truth and validity is there in this kind of reasoning?
Aldous Huxley’s prophetic novel Brave New World foresaw much of how we are ‘managed’ by governments today. Psychological manipulation, electronic surveillance through accessing our mobile communications and online edutainment, and reproductive technologies are several developments Huxley outlines in his novel. He feared we would lose our individual rights and identity in the world of the future. Huxley eschewed a youthful, narcissistic culture which was inward looking, self-serving, sexually promiscuous and avoided any ethical and moral arguments on some of the tough issue facing emerging civilizations in the early part of the 20th century. Sound familiar? It should as it succinctly describes the kind of self-absorbed culture the West holds up as an ideal in the early years of the 21st century. One which is open to the kinds of managed manipulation which characterizes say China, North Korea and the Russian Federation. The Chinese must look on the current furor caused by Snowden with a kind of bemused incredulity, asking ‘what’s all the fuss about-privacy what kind of illusory concept is that?
Is it an illusory concept in the West in the 21st century? Ruebhausen and Brim (1965) argue that a successful open society must contain the tensions which exist between competing forces. They assert that by tradition the West’s quite specific forms of democracy protect the individual from excessive accumulation of power by their elected representatives. They cite the separation of Church and State, the secular control of the military and the laws which regulate corporations and protect workers as key examples of hard won laws and freedoms in an open society. Moreover they specifically cite the “familiar and constructive tensions which exists” between science and technology and its needs for restrictions on individual freedoms. (Ruebhausen & Brim, Jr., 1965). They argue that the “conflict of secrecy for purposes of national security with the free dissemination of knowledge” will create ongoing tensions in open societies, and such a conflict is complex. To some extent they are right, but their arguments lack an ethical or moral basis on which to draw any conclusions. However, history provides some guidance here, firstly through the insights and wisdom of Sir Thomas More, as he stood trial for treason against a rapacious, syphilitic King Henry VIII, hell bent on ruling women and the world:
“What you have hunted me for is not my actions, but the thoughts of my heart.
It is a long road you have opened. For, first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts. God help the people whose statesmen
walk your road” (Bolt, 1996)
Whatever disguises our elected leaders wear today, whether they be the Barrack Obamas, George, W Bushes, Tony Blairs, or Julia Gillards of this world; it is indeed their roads we walk. And God help us all.
But, the last word on privacy in the 21st century must go to a leading, yet controversial figure from the 20th century, Pope Pius XII:
“There is a large portion of his inner world which the person discloses to a few confidential friends and shields against the intrusion of others. Certain (other) matters are kept secret at any price, and in regard to anyone. Finally there are matters which the person is unable to consider…and just as it is illicit to appropriate another’s goods or to make an attempt on his bodily integrity, without his consent, so it is not permissible to enter into his inner domain against his will, whatever the technique or method used” (XII Pius, 1958)
Regardless of the tensions which exist between individual freedoms and a government’s right to secure the safety of its citizenry, and to safeguard and maintain its own vested interests, Edward Snowden has shown us how the hard won freedoms of the Enlightenment and our open societies are slipping away. They are being usurped in the new Dark Ages of technological surveillance and compliance, along with an uncritical and unquestioning deference to the madness of the men in suits and their electronic machines.
Bolt, R. (1996). A Man For All Seasons. London: Heinemann.
Ruebhausen, O., & Brim, Jr., O. G. (1965). Privacy and Behavioral Research. Colombia Law Review, Vol. 65, No.7, 1184-1211.
XII Pius, P. (1958, April 10). Address to the Congress of the International Association of Applied Psychology. International Congress of Applied Psychology. Rome, Italy, 1958