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The Confusing Paradox of Social Media, Transparency, Privacy, Security and Spying
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-10-28 10:47:13
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A few days ago as I read the intriguing editorial by Thanos Kalamidas on the “Global Watergate,” it occurred to me that indeed the headline of the global media have stumbled upon a relevant paradox of modern times; namely this: the more we disregard our personal privacy via Social Media the more sensitive we seem to become to spying among the “leviathans” which are the modern states. It is going on, I dare say, as we speak. I see this strange phenomenon in class almost every time I teach: I observe some students who are addicted to texting, who disregarding the punishment of loss of points for violating class regulations, are busy texting and revealing everything going on their lives on Facebook or Twiddle.

It is indeed amazing to read the intimate details that people of all ages dare place on Face-book, blissfully unaware that they are putting something out there on a forum which is practically eternal. There seem to be no filters to social media when they do so, but the same people will bitterly protest and complain when they feel their privacy invaded by some one else, or perhaps by Google, or Face-book. So we are treated to the hilarious paradox of people on Face-book complaining about privacy issues on Face-book, of course. We have indeed observed it in Ovi magazine: people complaining of being stalked or trolled, as they put, while at the same time revealing to everyone some rather intimate and private details of their lives. Some are not with the magazine any longer.

Are these people in any way aware that there is a powerful technology available nowadays which makes one’s cellular telephone (smart or dumb as the case may be) a veritable microphone and a pointer to one’s location anywhere in the world, even when it is not engaged? And if they know it and continue to carry and use a cellular phone, have they not willingly accepted the loss of privacy that it entails? One wonders; especially when it comes to heads of states whom we assume to be a bit smarter than their phones.  

But the issue goes much further back in time. It has been around since the Puritans first landed on Plymouth Rock in the 1600s.  They did not seem to believe in any personal privacy; one had to live transparently before God and before one’s neighbor and one had an obligation to keep an eye on one’s neighbor to see what they were up to, for the health of their soul, of course.  Even their sins and transgression could not long remain secret as the novel The Scarlet Letter amplyattests to.


A Puritan Community of the 17th century


The Scarlet Letter (1850) reveals a 17th century world
of complete transparency which rejects privacy

Things didn’t change a whole lot through the 1700s.  It was not until 1787 that mail confidentiality is finally legally enforced and not until the mid-1800s that you could seal an envelope when mailing something.  Yet, from the very first census in 1787, Americans reveal a basic skepticism about their government knowing too much about them. As we progress through our history into the 20th Century, we arrive at the telephone which became a device for bugging. Enter Watergate and The Cold War where Americans wanted their government to find the “communists” which McCarty saw under every bed, via spying.  I guess spying is okay as long as it’s on the “other guy”.  James Bond and Get Smart entertain us with all the various “spy” devices and tactics.

Most recently the Wiki-leaks and the NSA. Surveillance issues have Americans wondering what is going on with their government and the massive information they are gathering as we speak. Leaks from the former government worker Edward Snowden, who naively doesn’t believe that any secrets and any spying ought to exist at all and wants to be considered a hero who blew the whistle while refusing to face the consequences of his violation of classified information, have catapulted the NSA into newspaper headlines and has demonstrated that it has become one of the most powerful government agencies. From the secret court rulings that allow it to collect data on all Americans to its systematic subversion of the entire Internet as a surveillance platform, the NSA has amassed an enormous amount of power.

Nevertheless, in a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, Americans supported the NSA tactics to gather information.  Interestingly, this was more favored by Democrats and Liberals than by Conservatives and Republicans.  It gets quite confusing at times.  Our Bill of Rights didn’t expressly address it although our First, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Ninth Amendments have developed case law.  Now our Second Amendment comes into the act as we wrestle with horrific periodic violence perpetrated even on school children, and with our right to bear arms to protect ourselves, again paradoxically, from the violence of assault weapons which the ARA finds innocent as lambs. The question arises: should our government know if we have personal weapons, especially since it may be the government from which we may need protection? There’s the privacy issue again. One wonders: are Europeans so differently constituted from Americans that they do not perceive those paradoxes? And yet, as mentioned, it all begins with the Puritans who were certainly Europeans.

This paradox may well continue as we wrestle with social media and all the new advances in technology such as GPS tracking and cell phones.  At the same time we need to continue dealing with terrorism and  need to feel secure in a dangerous and vicious world. There are presently two basic schools of thought about how this strange paradox came to pass. The first focuses on the agency’s power. Like J. Edgar Hoover, NSA Director Keith Alexander has become so powerful as to feel above the law. He is able to get away with what he does because neither political party dare cross him in any way. One does it at the risk of being branded unpatriotic and an appeaser of terrorism.


Possibly the best evidence for this position is how well Alexander has weathered the Snowden leaks. The NSA’s most intimate secrets are front-page headlines, week after week. Revelation after revelation has demonstrated that Alexander has exceeded his authority, deceived Congress, and possibly broken the law. Alexander has admitted that he still doesn’t know what Snowden took with him and wouldn’t have known about the leak at all had Snowden not gone public. He has no idea who else might have stolen secrets before Snowden, or who such insiders might have provided them to.

The second school of thought is that it’s the administrations’ fault. According to this theory, the NSA is simply doing its job. If there’s a problem with the NSA’s actions, it’s because the rules it’s operating under are bad. Like the military, the NSA is merely an instrument of national policy. Blaming the NSA for creating a surveillance state is comparable to blaming the U.S. military for the conduct of the Iraq war. Alexander is performing the mission given to him as best he can, under the rules he has been given, with the sort of enthusiasm you’d expect from someone promoted into that position.

In conclusion, it appears that the laws aren’t keeping pace with technology. Every year, technology gives us possibilities that our laws simply don’t cover very clearly. And whenever there’s a gray area, the NSA interprets whatever law there is to give them the most expansive authority. They simply run rings around the secret court that rules on these things. My guess is that while they have clearly broken the spirit of the law bit it’ll be harder to demonstrate that they broke the letter of the law too.

Regardless of how we got here, the NSA can’t reform itself. Change cannot come from within; it has to come from above. It’s the job of government: of Congress, of the courts, and of the president. These are the people who have the ability to investigate how things became so bad, rein in the rogue agency, and establish new systems of transparency, oversight and accountability.

We need to be able to eavesdrop on our enemies, but we need to do so in a way that doesn’t trample on the constitutional rights of Americans and the respect and trust due to our allies, without jeopardizing their privacy or security. This means that sometimes the NSA won’t get to eavesdrop, just as the protections we put in place to restrain police sometimes result in a criminal getting away. This is a trade-off we need to make willingly and openly, because overall we are safer that way. Once we do this, there needs to be a cultural change within the NSA. Like at the FBI and CIA after past abuses, the NSA needs new leadership committed to changing its culture, for indeed it is hard to see how America and its guarantees of freedom and autonomy can long survive in the West if we continue to tolerate an agency that considers itself above the law.


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Leah Sellers2013-10-28 15:14:19
Well stated Brother Emanuel,
For is God is always the Watcher, then why should We not always Be and Do the same ? Especially, if we are in positions that some consider godships.
After all, the gods have always sought ways to Morph and Manipulate so called established Rules, Laws and Regulations to suit their Purposes. Change itself BeComes Relative and Situational.

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