On State Surveillance

Letter to A.M. - October 25, 2014

by Kyle Flemmer


I enjoyed your letter to George Orwell very much. It's well written and heartfelt. I implore you, do not hesitate to write further because you are "no master." Neither you nor Mr. Orwell were born that way, and you are as competent a writer as you will ever need to be. Every improvement in your craft is simply another step towards mastery. I also really like the idea of open letters addressed to a specific person but written for the public. Many of the philosophical works I've read over the last several years frame themselves in this way, and I have been meaning to write several letters of this nature myself. This is as good an opportunity to start as any!

I went to a lecture by Glenn Greenwald (the journalist who received the leaked NSA documents from Edward Snowden) on state surveillance last night, and the speaker made some important connections to the Orwellian vision of political hegemony. He even drew parallels between the kind of conformist behavior people exhibit under constant surveillance and under religious oppression. He pointed out the very powerful effects of the feeling of constantly being watched on the human psyche, whether or not that supervision is actually taking place. For instance, Jeremy Bentham devised what he called a "panopticon" (all-seeing) for use in prisons. Essentially, the prison is constructed around a guard tower so one guard can observe all the inmates simultaneously. Obviously the guard is not looking at all the prisoners all the time, but they could be looking at any one of them at any moment, and this is the point. The threat of observation is just as potent a weapon as observation itself.

Privacy is not just for "bad" people trying to conceal their terrorist plots; everybody has stuff to hide, and necessarily so. Some of the most important, most strikingly human activities reside solely in a private space - creativity, personal exploration, dissent, autonomy - and even though we are social creatures, we are also individuals who require a totally individual space we can retreat into. Some philosophers (Boethius, Marcus Aurelius, and other stoics) argue this space is the mind, and no matter what occurs in the external world, you will always have the private space of your mind to take refuge in. Unfortunately, the external environment can have extremely powerful sway over the operations of the mind, as the panopticon demonstrated. The stress of constant observation will literally change how you think and act. Imagine how the citizens of London feel under the steady gaze of their state-sponsored "security" cameras. After the riots a few years back, police used footage from their thousands of closed-circuit feeds to follow protesters back to their houses or places of work. They used facial recognition software to identify and prosecute a whole bunch of their own citizenry whose "crime" was to take a stand against political corruption and oppression. I bet Londoners will think twice before rising up again, or rather, they may not think it at all.

The really messed up part is that the government doesn't even need security cameras anymore - we willing carry them around with us all the time. We pay for them ourselves and volunteer massive amounts of personal information to, well, anybody with an internet connection. This problem of Big Brother is not an emerging evil; it is already thoroughly entrenched in modern societies. I'm not sure if you are aware of this, but Canada is a member of the Five Eyes agreement, which unites many of the clandestine surveillance networks hidden within western government bodies (including the NSA and CSIS). The NSA’s mandate is to "collect everything" - not "collect the terrorists' data" or "collect a small sample from everybody," but "collect everything." And they do. This message and the one you sent me are undoubtedly saved to a secret government server, waiting for an automated screening algorithm to identify us as potential threats for our liberal use of targeted keywords. That is not hyperbole to make a point but a fact of communicating electronically.

State surveillance makes up only a small part of the Orwellian nightmare, the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but I have focused on it here, in part because it is fresh in my mind, and in part because it is the visible symptom of a deeper issue. The real problem is lurking beneath the surface in a realm most of us normal citizens are completely ignorant to. Our government, and I'm using "our" fairly loosely, conducts a great deal of its business, both foreign and domestic, behind closed doors. Cabinet meetings are legally protected from the prying eyes of the public and all cabinet members swear an oath, which is binding for the rest of their lives, to keep cabinet proceedings secret. There is also the Official Secrets Act which applies to all Canadians, but specifically aimed at journalists, public employees, and opposition party members. It prohibits possessing, distributing, or publicizing any information deemed harmful to the government. Cabinet members often hide behind this Act to avoid answering uncomfortable questions, and in doing so, they represent themselves as Privy Councilors to the Crown rather than elected officials responsible to the people they govern. In Canada, members of Parliament are obligated to tow the party line on important (read: pretty much all) issues. So even if you do manage to elect a conscientious representative in your riding, they will vote with the party and not with their heart or constituents. If this party happens to hold a majority, as the Conservatives do now, it amounts to the Prime Minister and his cabinet (read: handpicked henchmen) having the power to compel the House of Commons to pass any legislation they table. And they can do it so fast the opposition and the media hardly have a chance to argue the other side.

By allowing our government to act in secret, we give it immeasurable power. I say immeasurable because we don’t know the kind of clandestine deals being made behind the court-sanctioned blackout. One such deal, which we only know about because of Snowden's documents leaked via Greenwald, occurred between CSEC and Canada’s lumber and mining interests. Communications Security Establishment Canada, or CSEC, was using metadata from phone calls and emails to track the communications of Brazil's Energy and Mines Ministry on behalf of Canadian industrial interests. Obviously the government should have a stake in industry and the global market, but spying on a friendly trading partner in hopes of gaining an economic advantage seems like the kind of economic imperialism we should avoid. This is just one case which has come to light; we can have little idea about what else has happened and is probably happening right now.

Government transparency and accountability have become mere words. Every politician pays lip service to them during their campaigns, but they are quickly erased from the platform as soon as the polls close. State secrecy is likely the biggest political issue of our generation, a wall behind which all the other problems are allowed to fester and grow. The wars Canada has been engaged in for over a decade, the fraud which took place in the last federal election, the infringement on other nations' economic sovereignty, the "expedited" (Harper's word) plundering of our civil liberties, the irreversible destruction of our environment in the name of business and prosperity - all are happening because the government conceals itself from the governed. Meanwhile, talking heads delude us into thinking Canadians are safe from the kinds of atrocities listed above, and as we sit quietly in our little homes, thinking little thoughts about how Great the White North is, our government continues to dismantle the rights, freedoms, and protections we treasure.

Thank you for participating in this all-important discussion. I hope we shall never see the day these transmissions are used as incriminating evidence against us.

With love, your friend,


On State Surveillance by Kyle Flemmer is Blasted Tree original nonfiction.

Feature Image by James Paramecio