Big Brother Is Here To Stay

Big Brother is here. Earlier this year, Edward Snowden exposed the full reach and extent to which the American government spies not only on its own people, but on foreign governments and even its supposed allies in Mexico, France, Germany, and the European Union. The National Security Agency (NSA) collects massive amounts of phone data, allegedly recording metadata not only in the US but in countries abroad as well. According to recent Der Spiegel reports, the NSA recorded 70.3 million phone calls in France last month.[1] The NSA also has access to vast amounts of internet history through cooperation with Google, Facebook, and Yahoo. This unfiltered access is further supplemented by reports that the NSA hacked into a former Mexican president’s email account.[1] In an ironic twist the specter of Big Brother that manifested in the Soviet Union, a concept that America spent the entire Cold War battling against, has now taken root in the US. Even more surprisingly, most Americans, especially the youth demographic, are perfectly content with this. Why? Evidence suggests a combination of factors, those primarily being the blanket acceptance of sharing personal information online and perceptions of the alien terrorist “other” which has enabled the “Us vs. Them” paradigm to have taken root.

Let us take a look at a possible social theory that seeks to explain why furor over the NSA revelations in America was surprisingly muted compared to more visible outrage in other countries such as Brazil, France, and Germany.[1] The first harkens back to the dangerous “you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide” argument. Many Americans feel that since they aren’t terrorists, and are generally law-abiding citizens, they have no reason to be outraged over an anti-terrorism security system.

Continuing to explore these concepts, we find ourselves asking why young Americans in particular are not terribly outraged that their government has unfiltered access to their information. An interesting explanation lies in the idea that social media and the ubiquity of the Internet has conditioned the youth of America to a hyper-connected world where the notion of privacy isn’t the same as it was for the generation that came of age in the Cold War. Currently, 85 percent of Americans have Internet access and about 75 percent of Americans say they get some of their news from social media, the Internet, or a combination of the two.[2][3] the millennial generation barely remembers a time without the Internet, and are thus used to living in a glass house, where everyone can see what they do if they choose to be active online.

This point segues into the next part of this social theory. Terrorism, specifically with regard to such groups like Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra, and Al-Shabab, have been propped up as a mysterious and generalized “other” against which we have waged a crusade. Any time these groups are depicted on television, they are shown clad in masks, chanting threatening phrases in an alien tongue, all while waving assault rifles in the air. To viewers, these terrorists aren’t people we can relate to, and they don’t fit within our everyday social structure. Simply put, we don’t recognize them as people, such portrayal often diminishes their humanity and therefore we become numb when they are exterminated. Political psychologist Vamik Volkan has explored in his works the “empathy gap,” the idea that two sides can demonize one another with ease even when in reality, they share many similarities.[4] President Obama pushed this trend with the escalation of drone usage in an effort to further eliminate targets. With the alleged terrorists now mere heat signatures on the screen, a simple push of a button is all that’s needed to take them out, reducing the act of killing to something similar to a video game. Consider a termite infestation in a home. These unrelatable and seemingly problematic insects, similarly to how many perceive terrorists, may require tearing down some walls but as long as it’s for the greater good it’s acceptable.

Furthermore, this works in conjunction with the dangerous “Us vs. Them” paradigm reminiscent of the Cold War, where allegiance with one side is absolute. Super-patriotic ideology reached a new level when President George W. Bush pushed a “with us or against us” mentality eventually leading to the passage of the Patriot Act and the birth of the massive clandestine network that is cloaked in secrecy.

To see the consequences of this paradigm, we can turn to the recent example of the Boston Marathon Bombing. Physically speaking this was a relatively minor terrorist attack that left three people dead and 264 wounded, but symbolically was an attack on everything America stood for. In an attempt to capture the terrorists responsible for the attack, the second largest city on the east coast was locked down and thousands of law enforcement officials were outfitted with military grade equipment, a development made possible through increased funding for police departments after the events of 9/11.

Were these efforts successful? Yes, Dzhokhar was captured and Tamerlan ended up dead in a shoot-out, so in the short-term the actions taken worked. However, concern should be raised that these actions set a dangerous precedent for the future. Terrorism is a very broad term that can be applied to any number of situations by a future authority, and it is not too hard to imagine a scenario where the excuse of “Terrorism” and the blanket defense term of “National Security” is used to justify actions that would be taken by a police state. To be clear this is not a comparison between the current American government and a totalitarian regime, this is just taking note of the historical record when events similar to this have occurred in the past. For example, the US government used the blanket defense of “containment” during the Cold War to justify the backing of morally bankrupt dictatorships, ordering the assassination of democratically elected world leaders, and, and engineering coups in Latin America and the Middle East.
In addition to America’s allies, many privacy advocates were outraged in the wake of Snowden’s revelations about the full extent of access the NSA, the CIA, and other government agencies have to the personal information of their citizens. Like many before them, they reference Orwell’s 1984 and lament that Big Brother may soon be a reality. The truth is, Big Brother isn’t on his way — he’s already here, and most of us are okay with that. Our passive acceptance of this new reality has been dulled by our embrace of the Internet, fostering a culture content to focus on how a barista messed up our Venti Pumpkin Spice Mochachino Frappu-latte again while we tweet complaints about the iOS 7 update and then Instagram our half-eaten blueberry pastry.

The only way to bring change to this system, ironically enough, may be to use the Internet as a means to coordinate reform efforts. We have seen measureable change brought about in countries abroad through mass-coordination via social media efforts. If the people can unite around a common base message of “Don’t Spy on Us” and then let their congressional representatives know how important this is to them, then and only then will we see substantial legislation pass.

Evan Bruning
International Affairs and Economics ‘17


[4] V.D. Volkan, The need to have enemies and allies: from clinical practice to international relationships, (Northvale, N.J., J. Aronson, Inc., 1988).


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