Photo: Dell’s Pics / Flickr
Suddenly, it feels like 2000 again. Back then, surveillance programs like Carnivore, Echelon, and Total Information Awareness helped spark a surge in electronic privacy awareness. Now a decade later, the recent discovery of programs like PRISM, Boundless Informant, and FISA orders are catalyzing renewed concern.
The programs of the past can be characterized as “proximate surveillance,” in which the government attempted to use technology to directly monitor communication themselves. The programs of this decade mark the transition to “oblique surveillance,” in which the government more often just goes to the places where information has been accumulating on its own, such as email providers, search engines, social networks, and telecoms.
Both then and now, privacy advocates have typically come into conflict with a persistent tension, in which many individuals don’t understand why they should be concerned about surveillance if they have nothing to hide. It’s even less clear in the world of “oblique” surveillance, given that apologists will always frame our use of information-gathering services like a mobile phone plan or Gmail as a choice.
We Won’t Always Know When We Have Something To Hide
As James Duane, a professor at Regent Law School and former defense attorney, notes in his excellent lecture on why it is never a good idea to talk to the police:
Estimates of the current size of the body of federal criminal law vary. It has been reported that the Congressional Research Service cannot even count the current number of federal crimes. These laws are scattered in over 50 titles of the United States Code, encompassing roughly 27,000 pages. Worse yet, the statutory code sections often incorporate, by reference, the provisions and sanctions of administrative regulations promulgated by various regulatory agencies under congressional authorization. Estimates of how many such regulations exist are even less well settled, but the ABA thinks there are ”nearly 10,000.”
If the federal government can’t even count how many laws there are, what chance does an individual have of being certain that they are not acting in violation of one of them?
As Supreme Court Justice Breyer elaborates:
The complexity of modern federal criminal law, codified in several thousand sections of the United States Code and the virtually infinite variety of factual circumstances that might trigger an investigation into a possible violation of the law, make it difficult for anyone to know, in advance, just when a particular set of statements might later appear (to a prosecutor) to be relevant to some such investigation.
For instance, did you know that it is a federal crime to be in possession of a lobster under a certain size? It doesn’t matter if you bought it at a grocery store, if someone else gave it to you, if it’s dead or alive, if you found it after it died of natural causes, or even if you killed it while acting in self defense. You can go to jail because of a lobster.
If the federal government had access to every email you’ve ever written and every phone call you’ve ever made, it’s almost certain that they could find something you’ve done which violates a provision in the 27,000 pages of federal statues or 10,000 administrative regulations. You probably do have something to hide, you just don’t know it yet.