Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Reasons to be Fearful: 5 Points in Response to Hague's "Law-Abiding Citizens" Claim.

Just in case you had forgotten that Tories are conservatives and that conservatives are on the right of the political spectrum where the exercise of the authority of the state is seen as more important than principles of justice and legitimacy, William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, appeared on The Andrew Marr show on BBC 1 (09/06/13) to respond to the breaking news on PRISM and tell the nation that law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear from GCHQ

Hague's comments have not elicited wide-spread outrage. Indeed, according to a poll reported in the Huffington Post  most people remain unconcerned about being spied on. This post is an attempt to demonstrate that Hague's comments rest on inaccuracies and flawed arguments, and, furthermore, persuade readers that his comments are designed precisely to render one unconcerned at the removal of our civil liberties. Hague's statement is like one that might have been employed to justify the actions of the Stasi. Why aren't people queuing-up to harangue Hague for such a problematic statement, which serves to both downplay the serious violations of public trust that have emerged in the past few days and demonstrate Hague's, and his government's, own lack of commitment to the public he is elected to represent? 

Five points

1. Confusion
Hague's argument willfully confuses the many different reasons for why a person might legitimately value privacy. We can grant that a person might want to keep something secret because what they are doing is legally prohibited (NSA-PRISM anyone?!), but there are also many other reasons for respecting and desiring privacy. Indeed, one might value privacy simply for the sake of privacy; sometimes we just like to be private. And one can spend some time identifying gradations between these two poles. Try a little thought experiment: think through the things you do in your life that you choose not to share publicly, those things you share with friends but don't have a desire to share more widely, and those things you do which you share with intimate others only. Finally, are there any things you keep solely to yourself? How many of these things fall into each of these categories because they are illegal? A desire for privacy can be and often is just that, a desire for privacy not a desire to avoid detection by law enforcement agencies. Such a desire might well be part of our human nature. It certainly does not mark one out as deviant. As one meme doing the rounds on the web has put it: "The UK government is to ban curtains. Hague said in a statement 'If you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear'".

2. Control
Of course there are for social conservatives felicitous consequences that might attach to Hague's comments: along with the leaking of PRISM, Hague's comments plant a thought in the minds of the the populace that could produce what we might refer to as panopticon-effects. That is to say, these thoughts can have a controlling, or a disciplining, effect. You act differently if you are being watched, right? If you must assume that you are being watched, since you are not in a position to know whether you are or not but you do know it is possible at any given moment, then you might act in a manner disciplined by that assumption. Of course, the point here is not that Hague made a calculated move in the hope of exercising control. Rather it is, as noted, felicitous and in being so contrasts in a illuminating manner with the official line on on Edward Snowden's whistleblowing. The official line of US and UK government officials is that Snowden's acts endanger the lives of soldiers. This canard should be seen for the shameful nonsense it is. Sending soldiers to fight in pointless and illegal wars is what endangers their lives. Snowden's act of courage might well have saved lives. The point is, without controls on the power of the security services it is a win-win game for conservatives: they can vilify whistleblowers as potentially costing lives (blood on the hands of the whistleblowers not on the hands of those taking us to war) and sit back and watch as a monitored population by and large are disciplined into conforming to their self-serving (neo)conservative projects. The only way to stop this is to re-establish accountability for the security services.

3. Divide
The complaint to be made in response to PRISM should not begin and end with one having the thought "I don't want to be spied on" but should rather prompt one to complain that "unfettered spying is unjust and has no place in a democracy". In arguing that law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear, Hague is deliberately trying to diminish valid concerns about the attack on principles of justice that PRISM represents. Hague wants to suggest to us that the issue is about the things we do, not about the things it is legitimate for the state to do. To illustrate, consider the following: my commitment to justice is not to justice simply for me, or me and my family, but to the principle of justice, being applied to all citizens, all people. Indeed, a moment's reflection should suggest to one that the idea of justice-as-selectively-applicable, as, for example, "justice for me and mine but not for them and theirs", does not really amount to justice, but is rather a plea for privileged treatment in the face of a bully. Our position should be that we don't want special treatment from the bully, but for there to be no bullies. A commitment to justice or a commitment to freedom is not founded in self-interest it is founded in a commitment to civilising principles that transcend the self-interest of specific individuals.  Hague's remarks were designed to divide us by making us think in terms of our individual self-interest and not in terms of principles of justice: those who complain must have a guilty conscience... right? No, those who complain know precisely what the crime is that PRISM represents.

4. Flaw
Hague's claim that ordinary law-abiding citizens had nothing to worry about because the government would not be listening-in on their correspondence is both rather obviously flawed and at variance with the facts as presented by the whistleblower:  Edward Snowden. He said:
“Even if you are not doing anything wrong you are being watched and recorded. The storage capability of these systems increases every year by an order of magnitude. You don't have to have done anything wrong, you simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody - even by a wrong call - and then they can use this system to go back in time to scrutinise every decision you have ever made, every friend you have ever discussed something with and attack you on that basis. To derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.”

The whole rationale for such snooping, for intelligence gathering, is to gather information so as to ascertain who is and who is not a threat. (We need not here, for the purposes of this point, discuss what is and is not a threat.) Therefore, it is internal to the logic of Hague's own position here that it is not possible to know before data collection and analysis who is and who is not a threat, for it is the desire for such knowledge on the part of the state which they claim justifies such intelligence gathering, such data trawling. If data is being collected then it could be collected from you, irrespective of whether you are law-abiding or not. The only criterion you need fulfill is that you fall under suspicion. Being under suspicion is not the same as contravening the law.

5. Separation
Contrary to what Hague suggests, the question should be not so much about on whom the state spies but on whose authority the state spies and what checks and balances there are on that authority. This is what determines the legitimacy of the spying. Put another way, what makes a state spying on its citizens a legitimate state act? Hague wants us to believe that questions of legitimacy do not matter because it is not law-abiding citizens who will be snooped on. But there are good reasons for respecting the established principles of due process and separation of powers, and not simply suspending those principles when it suits. Indeed, separation of powers is championed as one of the cornerstones of democratic, non-authoritarian and non-totalitarian states. The idea is as follows: certain groups have specific interests that they will push: Police forces demand more power; the security services demand more access to information; and, of course, corporations demand lower corporation tax and reduced labour laws, and so on. That is why, so the argument goes, we don't allow the police and security services to make our laws, and why we should restrict the influence that corporations have on policy makers, particularly with regards to tax policy and employment law. Certain groups have specific prevailing interests that we understand need balancing with the interests of others, so that those groups do not secure disproportionate power or influence. This is why "police state" is a pejorative term. It's not that in using the term "police state" and doing so pejoratively we thereby believe that we should have no police force or that they should not have powers required so as to enforce the law; it is rather that this power we grant them should be clearly separated from political (legislative) power, and should be subject to checks against abuses of that power and balanced against other interests such as individual freedoms of ordinary members of the public. A country with an omnipotent state might well have a very effective security service but in such a country there is really very little left that is worth securing for much of the population.

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