“The inevitable end of surveillance is self-censorship”

One the biggest dangers posed by the NSA’s overreaching surveillance programs is the chilling of free speech. Overzealous governments are spying on us, intimidating our families, and sending brutes to the offices of renowned newspapers with the clear intent of stopping people from reporting the facts about the massive, international government spying complex.

This week, two incidents proved this point all too well:

1. The UK government held Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda for NINE HOURS at Heathrow Airport yesterday, citing a section of the British Terrorism Act. It was an outrageous act designed to intimidate journalists like Greenwald who, by exposing the truth about secret government programs, threaten the continued well-being of the defense-surveillance state. (Free Press’ call to end this intimidation is here.)

2. Tonight, we learned that the British intelligence unit GCHQ attempted to liberate the Guardian of hard drives containing Edward Snowden’s leaks. The agents, apparently not very cognizant of the way the Internet works, thought that if they stormed the Guardian’s London offices — the NSA reporting is flowing through its New York office — and destroyed the hardware the data would disappear. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger explains that it doesn’t really work that way.

Meanwhile, Peggy Noonan — that Peggy Noonan — recently interviewed Nat Hentoff and got some choice quotes about the dangers state surveillance state poses to our constitutional right to communicate and Americans’ understanding of themselves and their country. There’s a lot to chew on, so I’ll just repost a few bits (emphasis mine):

About a year ago [Hentoff] went up to Harvard to speak to a class. He asked, he recalled: “How many of you realize the connection between what’s happening with the Fourth Amendment with the First Amendment?” He told the students that if citizens don’t have basic privacies—firm protections against the search and seizure of your private communications, for instance—they will be left feeling “threatened.” This will make citizens increasingly concerned “about what they say, and they do, and they think.” It will have the effect of constricting freedom of expression. Americans will become careful about what they say that can be misunderstood or misinterpreted, and then too careful about what they say that can be understood. The inevitable end of surveillance is self-censorship.

Mr. Hentoff’s second point: An entrenched surveillance state will change and distort the balance that allows free government to function successfully. Broad and intrusive surveillance will, definitively, put government in charge. But a republic only works, Mr. Hentoff notes, if public officials know that they—and the government itself—answer to the citizens. It doesn’t work, and is distorted, if the citizens must answer to the government. And that will happen more and more if the government knows—and you know—that the government has something, or some things, on you. …

What of those who say, “I have nothing to fear, I don’t do anything wrong”? Mr. Hentoff suggests that’s a false sense of security. “When you have this amount of privacy invasion put into these huge data banks, who knows what will come out?” Or can be made to come out through misunderstanding the data, or finagling, or mischief of one sort or another. “People say, ‘Well I’ve done nothing wrong so why should I worry?’ But that’s too easy a way to get out of what is in our history—constant attempts to try to change who we are as Americans.”

Mr. Hentoff notes that J. Edgar Hoover didn’t have all this technology. “He would be so envious of what NSA can do.”

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