The New Privacy: How the NSA Protects Our Right to Be Isolationists

The New Privacy: How the NSA Protects Our Right to Be Isolationists December 3, 2013



Constant surveillance by an impersonal power preserves a modern society more autonomous and secretive than any that came before. 

You have never been watched more than you were today. The parking meter you paid with a credit card, the camera at the café’s door, the gift card you used to buy your coffee, the emails you sent from your laptop, and the status you posted on Facebook have tracked you, tagged you, placed you, recorded you, spotted you. Your information has been sorted, logged, and crunched by Google, Visa, and the NSA. The new gods of Analytics and Algorithms are churning out predictions and customized reports for the high priests of Big Data.

You have also never had more privacy than you had today. No one knows what you watched, what you read, what you bought online and shipped to your house, what you had for dinner, or whom you’re texting. When you want to, you tell the world what you’re doing, but no one would confuse what you disclose with the truth. On Twitter, you watch HBO: on Netflix, you watch TLC. A man’s home is his castle, but so is his car, his cubicle, his cell phone.

How can we reconcile these two realities? In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying, it has been assumed that the NSA’s activities constitute a meaningful loss of privacy. But what if surveillance was an integral part of gaining more privacy? What if PRISM is part and parcel of a new kind of society, a society in which more and more of everyday life is hidden from public knowledge, in which individuals are better known by multinational corporations than by their neighbors, and in which people achieve unprecedented anonymity and autonomy? In fact, any threat to our privacy from the NSA pales in comparison to the breadth of privacy granted to us by the society the NSA protects and enables. We have made a Faustian bargain, trading away our privacy from state and corporate interests for an unprecedented privacy from the people around us.

A History of Privacy

In the Politics, Aristotle distinguishes between the polis (the city) and the oikos (the household). While man may acquire certain virtues in the privacy of the oikos, he only finds true happiness, lives the good life, in the polis, where his fundamentally social and communal nature can be fulfilled. In rare instances, the contemplative life allowed man to pursue the good by retreating from public life. But generally, the Ancients considered solitude and privacy inferior to a life lived in community.

For most of the Middle Ages, “privacy” was almost nonexistent. Daily life in feudal society was exceptionally communal, with shared housing and workspaces. Rarely would one engage in any activity without a companion. Even walking alone outside of the village was stigmatized as the activity of rogues and scoundrels. The sole domain belonging to the individual was spiritual retreat for prayer and contemplation.

And so, prior to the Industrial Age, most of life was lived in the public sphere, subject to the knowledge of one’s peers. One enjoyed “the right not to be bothered” on one’s own private property, but to achieve the economic and social benefits of society, one had to physically leave one’s privacy. Your activities were not yours alone—whether it was picking up your mail from the local post office, buying goods at a general store, trading produce at a market, or worshipping at a church, your neighbors knew your associations, your habits, and your opinions. The kinds of knowledge your neighbors possessed were not so different from the kinds of information the NSA may monitor today—with whom you correspond, what you purchase, and what you hold dear.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, new technologies like photography and mass journalism allowed for the stuff of daily life to be displayed to an unlimited, undifferentiated Public. Gossip about the lords of the manor has been part of common life for millennia, but tabloid journalism rose up to replace more traditional rumor-mongering. In 1890, future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis argued  for a legal principle based on the distaste elites held for this sort of exposure in a Harvard Law Review article entitled “The Right to Privacy.” Brandeis struggled to explain what exactly elites wished to protect. It was not property, per se, for nothing was “stolen” if a tabloid published one’s diary, and the value of a diary is not commercial, so copyright  law is inapplicable. Brandeis’s article started an influential discussion about a right to prevent publication of the details of one’s private life, a protection against the unknown and untrustworthy masses, the Public.

In the 20th century, the rise of suburbia and the automobile left American life with fewer places for public knowledge and greater and greater space for individual autonomy and anonymity. In Katz v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that warrantless wiretaps, even of a public payphone, were illegal, because the defendant had a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Katz established in law what has become true in fact; privacy is now about people and their desire for isolation, not the places where that isolation was traditionally possible. The anonymous society meant that people wanted to be let alone wherever they went; new technologies and social forms made it possible.

Homo Anonymous

This evolved form of privacy, anonymity in service to autonomy, is the foundation of a new kind of society. Its citizen is Homo Anonymous, and its guardians are none other than the institutions of surveillance. Technology, while vital to the function of the Surveillance Society, did not cause it. Rather, this new society is the internalization and domestication of the American frontier mentality—the perpetual search for a space of one’s own. The small towns and public squares that bolstered our agrarian republic were also small-minded, constrictive and judgmental places. In a society that devalues communal ties, the judgments of our peers infringe on our notional freedom. Whereas a misfit once f led into the Wild West, he now flees into himself. Our society permits him to cut himself off from public knowledge, to hide in virtual worlds or obscure subcultures, all without losing the material benefits of living in society. The desire to escape our neighbors is probably not unique in human history, but its actualization in modern American society is unrivaled.

Autonomy and “privacy” have always been possible outside of society, but as Hobbes observed, such a life is invariably “cold, nasty, brutish, and short.” When Homo Anonymous enters into society, he faces a dilemma. On the one hand, he requires the help of others to secure the most prosperous life for himself. On the other hand, he neither trusts the other anonymous people in his society nor wishes to establish deep trust, which would entail being subject to the knowledge and judgment of others. Lacking trust, Homo Anonymous knows that his partners could always take advantage of him. Rather than hash out difficult compromises with his peers, he prefers interactions with rational-bureaucratic institutions. He trusts the organization where he does not trust his fellow man: it is objective, impersonal, and consistent, and it does not threaten his anonymity and autonomy. Thus, the bureaucratic organization is the key prerequisite for the formation of a Surveillance Society, for it provides a substitute for the material benefits of organic community in the public square.

Les Surveilleurs

The fundamental characteristic of the modern organization, what makes it so useful to Homo Anonymous, is surveillance. To surveil is not simply to watch, but to watch from above. Surveillance is cool, detached, and objective. Modern organizations provide a substitute for trust: they conduct transactions purified of care, emotion, or personal judgment. Organizations adapt themselves to serve Homo Anonymous by recording his preferences, wishes, and desires. With birthday greetings, prescient book recommendations, and automatic reminders, they provide Homo Anonymous the benefits of personal relationship without obliging care or responsibility from him, while shrouding him in privacy.

This sort of surveillance shares little with the surveillance of totalitarian societies. Totalitarian surveillance subjects an unconsenting individual to observation by a menacing and anonymous State. In the surveillance society, however, the individual is as anonymous to the organization as the organization is to him, and the individual ostensibly consents to the monitoring. Not only does the organization not “know” his name; more radically, the organization “knows” nothing—it processes his information as disinterestedly as a threshing machine. Even in the rare cases when an actual human looks at the surveillance data, he does so with the detached air of the professional bureaucrat. Moreover, the organization itself surveils and controls the bureaucrat. It records all of his activities and maintains internal privacy provisions. While abuses are perhaps possible, they are exceedingly rare, and getting rarer, as computers perform more and more work. In the Surveillance Society, Homo Anonymous is never in danger of being known, found out, or judged.

Our idioms have concealed the radical nature of the surveillance society. We might speak of Amazon or Netflix or the NSA “knowing” what we do or “watching” us, but we are merely anthropomorphizing our interactions. There is no man behind the curtain; no one at Netflix or Amazon is whispering to a colleague, “look, she’s watching Real Housewives” or, “look, he bought a Snuggie.” Strictly speaking, no one is watching. Moreover, the data contained within the massive databases of the surveilleurs are highly protected. Even as these organizations collect more and more information about us, they keep it more and more secure from the eyes of any particular person. The ultimate attack within the surveillance society is not to collect or to watch, but to publicize, and the surveillance organizations are duty-bound to keep your secrets safe.

In the constellation of surveillance organizations, security services like the NSA have a special role. Whereas Google facilitates anonymous learning, Amazon facilitates anonymous shopping, and Seamless facilitates anonymous dining, the NSA is a guardian, watching over me for my security. In an anonymous society, I am subject to the unpredictable

violence of strangers. However, I do not wish to either breach my neighbors’ anonymity nor (especially) have my own broken by entering into the kinds of continuous and consistent public relationships and public knowledge that might allow me to trust and be trusted. Instead, organizations like the NSA are an elegant solution—they keep me safe from my “neighbors” and them safe from me, all without disclosing my true character to my peers. The NSA is characterized by discretion and privacy. Its investigations are not public, and it produces no public record that might record embarrassing details about my life. Far from being an enemy of privacy, the NSA protects the integrity of the Surveillance Society.


Contrary to the bloviating of Glenn Greenwald, Julian Assange, and company, there is no reality in which one’s activities are of no interest to one’s neighbors; any sober observer realizes that cyber-space is still political. The only real choice is whether you and your neighbors entangle each other in personal knowledge, judgment, and mutual obligation or rather entrust a third party to vouchsafe you to one another. None of the surveillance organizations of our society breach the realms of traditionally private activity. Rather, these organizations collectively establish and protect a greater and greater “privatization” of the public sphere, wherein more and more human activity can be conducted without ever entering into community. Even where interactions with real human beings remain, they are increasingly scripted, regulated, and anonymous—who among us has had a meaningful experience with a McDonald’s cashier or a tech support operator?

We are no doubt right to be wary of governmental power. But we must also ask ourselves how and why this power arose, what kind of society this power supports. The rise of the Surveillance Society (including its security functions) corresponds to the great unwinding of American Life. The Surveillance Society hides our dependence on our neighbors and, as Tocqueville warned it would, gives rise to a democratic soul who is “in the end [confined] entirely within the solitude of his own heart.” When we fear for our privacy, to whom are we afraid of being exposed? Who would we rather know every single thing we do on the Internet—the NSA or our spouses? How can we sit at home alone, watching TV, ordering pizza online, even earning a salary, and complain about our lack of privacy? It is vulnerability, intimacy, and the judgments of others that we lack and fear, and the NSA never threatens any of those.

This analysis reveals the deep congruity between the Silicon Valley techno-libertarianism dominating our politics and the Surveillance Society. Silicon Valley luminaries like Eric Schmidt, Mark Zuckerburg, and Jared Cohen are robust defenders of a liberal, plural- istic, society. They fight limitations on the rights of individuals to make their own choices free from the judgments or constraints of societal norms, and they believe that technology empowers individuals more than it enslaves them.

And yet, these entrepreneurs have worked hard to build the Surveillance Society. They call it by other names—the Free Market, the New Digital Age, the Future, or Progress. They work towards a society of science and technology, where an objective pursuit of universal truths frees us to discover our common humanity, unchaining us from parochialism and oppression, allowing individuals to flourish. They are opposed to censorship, restrictions on individual behavior or belief, and “manufactured consent” (which is to say, obligation). Authoritarian states of course fit the bill. But authoritarian countries are simply the cancerous outgrowths of traditional cultures struggling with modernity. For traditional communities, too, are sites of “oppression.” They demand participation, on threat of exile. They oblige the individual to enact social roles he may not desire, they limit his possibilities, and they censor behavior and belief. Except for its pre-modern scale, Colonial Boston was just as restrictive as contemporary Tehran. And so, while our preeminent technologists (and average Americans) agree that government surveillance institutions need to be tweaked with more safe- guards against abuses and more transparency, they also would rather live in a society with PRISM than live without it.

The only radical alternative to the Surveillance Society is community. Not the perfect communities of Norman Rockwell or Wendell Berry. Communities full of gossips and prudes, where staid traditions and petty grievances often threaten to overwhelm the individual. The recent surge in communitarianism has often presented an idealized vision of what local living looks like. This will not do. Communitarianism has a coherent critique and alternative to offer the denizens of the Surveillance Society, an argument too lengthy to provide here. But even before that critique begins, those who love community must recognize that their ideas of utopia seem like nightmarish folly to their contemporaries. To turn away from the Surveillance Society, we do not only need a new vision. We need new affections. It is not enough to acknowledge that “we do not have to live as if we are alone.” We must be reminded that we ought not want to.


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