In a bizarre application of the old "blame the victim" idea, the Guardian's James Ball has decided that ordinary people with nosy neighbor syndrome are the fundamental cause of government spying. It's a classic example of confusing the cultural problem of gossip with the political problem of surveillance.
This comes in the wake of that viral video a guy took of a housekeeper cleaning his hotel room and riffling through his stuff. The question is, what makes us want to spy on a housekeeper and punish her with internet infamy when she dares to spend time looking at some videogames before making the bed? It's probably the same urge that makes us gossip about celebrities, and spread vicious rumors about people that can harm their reputations and send them into deep depression. Call it nosy neighbor syndrome. It's an ugly urge, and has only gotten more pernicious in the wake of easily-available cams and gossip-spreading services like YouTube and Facebook.
But this is where Ball's analysis takes a deep dive into wrongness. He wants to claim that we can hardly be enraged at the NSA for spying on all of us, when we are so busily spying on each other.
Is it any surprise that GCHQ and the NSA have built up such an overwhelming array of surveillance tools, hoovering up the messages of whole countries at a time, when given the chance many of us – it seems – build similar versions for those around us?
I don't want to pick on Ball specifically here, because he's written plenty of other essays that are perfectly good assessments of the social impact of technology. Really I'm using this comment in his essay as an example of a larger problem that many people have in distinguishing between two related but absolutely different phenomena.
The urge to snoop on our neighbors and gossip about them can occasionally lead to tragic consequences, but it's not part of a systematic attempt to maintain control over an entire population for political reasons. We have no social contract with our neighbors to protect us and uphold the law the way we do with government agencies. We do not elect our neighbors, nor do we entrust them with our welfare.
In short, we do not hold our neighbors up to the same standards that we do our government, nor should we. When a guy films his housekeeper, it's rude and socially inappropriate and quite possibly illegal. But when a government spies on all of its citizens, it is not only illegal but a transformation of the entire public sphere in a space of authoritarian control. Our neighbors have the power to shame us socially, but the government has the power to round us up into camps and murder us.
Confusing the two forms of power is not just a mistake, but dangerous. It makes radical violations of our political freedom into mere nosiness. The NSA is not just one creepy dude or gossipy clique. It is a highly structured organization with access to vast amounts of private information and military resources.
Just because ordinary citizens love to indulge in gossip does not mean we are "asking for it" when it comes to government surveillance. We did not bring warrantless wiretapping on ourselves with our salacious YouTube habits. We are still innocent. And we do not deserve what has happened to us.