The philosophy of the “surveillance state:” people versus patterns

With the recent leaks of government spying under the NSA, the political debate of the “surveillance state” has revived itself from its former Patriotic Act life. Many are surprised by the recent oversight actions of the administration, but if one stays in line with Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin’s perspective, the expansion of political surveillance is a predictable outcome of growing information technology.

As our ability to monitor others grows, so will the temptation by private and governmental organizations to do so. Following in step with the National Welfare State and the National Security State, the evolved National Surveillance State has arrived.

According to Balkin, the welfare system required immense data processing to identify individuals, which was then used in the name of security. While these data are supposedly mined for the “public good,” many are not so sure they want their government determining what that “good” is.

Increasing technological tools always have the option of falling into both good and bad hands, and, while the frontier for “public good” expands through these surveillance methods, so does the frontier for crime and potential abuse.

The ultimate question behind the NSA actions is a basic question of political philosophy: Who is in charge?

The surveillance actions of the government reveal a significant divergence from the classical liberalism of America’s history, which operated off of physical harm rather than potential motive. Furthermore, the issue of human dignity is one that comes into question under this new philosophy of “surveillance.” No longer are citizens complex people with dignified souls. Rather, we are psychoanalyzed through algorithms, treated as predictable subjects of complicated mathematics and behavioral psychology.

People become patterns of information. No longer is it your soul that matters to the government; it is your information. In surveillance, citizens are not people; they are pods of information that are unfortunately fragile and troublesome. They are mice that must be herded correctly so as to not hurt themselves.

The real issue at hand is who owns whom, moreover who governs whom. Do the people govern the government or does the government govern the people? The dangerous nature of the surveillance state is the inherent inverse of democratic principles at play. No longer are the people the ruler and decider of the state. No longer must the people be wary and keep an eye out for the state, which is always assuming greater power. No, now it is the government who must keep the people in check, always making sure the people are governed into proper submission. The checks and balance still exist albeit, but they have been turned against the very ones they were created to protect.

Since these new forms of technological surveillance will not go away, there must be even stronger steps towards regulating information technology democratically and in a way that recognizes the power and humanity of the people. This requires more transparency, less obsession with security, and fair processing of information. The Fourth Amendment works, it must merely be revisited to evaluate the constitutionality of information mining.

But this is not what the administration appears to be striving toward. The reports show hoarding of information that comes in and siphoning of information that goes out. After all, President Obama assures us, we must discredit the voices of our founding who told us that government, though necessary, must be balanced. Don’t be wary or paranoid. Big Brother is your best friend; he just knows better.

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