Growing up in the Cold War and watching movies about WWII I absorbed the lesson that authoritarian police states spied on their citizens and had no regard for the freedom of the press. In the West, or so I was raised to believe, the government did not spy on the people and respected our freedoms. That sort of behavior was for the bad guys—the Nazis and the Reds. Those of us in the white hats, well, we were a better sort.
As I grew up, I learned that our white hats were not quite so white. But, I still believed that domestic spying was fairly limited and that the press was mostly free. As technology changed, I was sure that domestic spying increased—after all, when people have the means, they are very good at finding reasons to use those means. After 9/11 I was quite sure that domestic spying had significantly increased and I heard about various programs involving big data. Still, the revelations of Prism were mildly surprising in terms of the scale of the data gathering and the blatant disregard of privacy rights and, of course, ethics.
In Prism and other such programs, the United States has a spying program that the Nazis and Reds only dreamed of—what amounts to a technological panopticon that scoops up massive data on everyone. While the claim is that the data is only used in accord with the law and is used for national security against terrorists, the fact remains that it is an incredibly powerful tool that could easily be used against citizens. Interestingly, the gun-rights folks were terrified of something as bush league as a Federal list of firearms. Prism and other programs should horrify them—and us as well.
I do not entertain any paranoid fantasies about black helicopters or vast conspiracies involving the Illuminati. I do not need to—this sort of vast system of spying is quite real as its potential for misuse. After all, by the iron law of technology, any technology that can be misused will be misused.
The folks in power almost certainly will want to expand on the use of these sort of police state systems. As proof, the main use of many of the legal tools generated for the war on terror has been in the realm of police work—typically involving drugs. It certainly makes sense that the police and others will see this data as too useful to not use. There is also the tendency of those in power to want to gather information and more power—these systems fit right into the usual pattern. This will not, of course, result in the sort of overnight take-over so popular in fiction, but the usual gradual erosion of privacy and rights.
One recent and dramatic example of the expanding police state was the British detention of journalist David Miranda. The justification was, as should be expected these days, laws relating to terror. These laws seem to be amazingly broad and apparently allow the state to do almost as it wishes, provided the words “national security” and “terrorism” are properly invoked. In addition to detaining and interrogating Miranda, the police also seized his property on the grounds that he might be carrying secrets. Miranda has no known connections to any actual terrorists—he is merely a journalist who has been working on the story about Snowden and the NSA.
The British government also leaned on the Guardian to pressure them into handing over the information the paper received from Snowden. Based on the information from Snowden, the Guardian claimed that the GCHQ used NSA data from Prism to illegally spy on British citizens. This has been denied by the government, but the claim certainly does have considerable plausibility.
On the one hand, a case can be made that the governments of the United States and Britain have been acting correctly: they are trying to keep their citizens safe and need to act against whistleblowers and journalists in order to preserve the secrets needed for national security.
On the other hand, it seems reasonable to believe that the governments are acting wrongly. The United States has set up a massive privacy violating spying program in response to the incredibly minor threat of terrorism. The United States and Britain have evoked the boogey man of terror and the magic words “national security” in what appears to be an attempt to conceal misdeeds and illegalities. The British have also engaged in what seems to be coercive tactics against journalists and the Guardian. That is to say, that the West is acting rather like the bad guys of my youth.