Students Against Surveillance

So the Students Against Surveillance campaign has started up again, with promotions from Restore the Fourth and @AnonyOps (one of the largest Twitter accounts run by Anonymous), more signatures from around the country (and the world), and a brand-new website design!

I’m very, very happy to be working on Students Against Surveillance again; it was the first actual work I did on cypherpunk issues (all right, I can’t actually say the word “cypherpunk” with a straight face, but it’s the only word I know that describes the activism on digital issues – whether they’re mass surveillance, net neutrality, the freedom of the press in the age of the Internet, encryption, you name it – that I love to do. The fact that it’s a ridiculous word doesn’t mean it’s not a great word. Look, can we just have a movement to bring back terrible ’90s slang? Yes? Radical.)

I care about anti-surveillance work very, very deeply. For me, it’s wrapped up in every single other issue that affects me: it’s an LGBT rights issue (being forcibly outed to total strangers is not my idea of gay lib, to say the least); it’s a feminist issue (apart from problems like nude photos, privacy has been a feminist issue since Roe v. Wade); it’s an issue of religious freedom (in a post-9/11 world, handing government agencies the power to use the law to surveil some people in order to stop “terrorism”, while important in theory, often translates in practice to institutionalizing Islamophobia); it’s, above all else, an issue of civil liberties.

Often, when discussing surveillance, you hear people repeat, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” This sentiment was even expressed by Eric Schmidt of Google in 2009, when he said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

But the fact is, this very easy to say if you’re Eric Schmidt. It’s not so easy to say if you’re a woman, if you’re not Christian or of Christian descent, if you’re queer.

It’s easy to say “don’t do anything you don’t want other people to know about” if there’s no possibility you might lose your job because you had a romantic relationship with someone of the same gender – after all, firing someone for being gay is still perfectly legal in 29 states. It’s easy to say “don’t do anything you don’t want other people to know about” if there’s no possibility that you might, one day, want to have an abortion, and know you might be harassed or attacked by pro-life activists. It’s easy to say “don’t do anything you don’t want other people to know about” if you’ve never needed to call a suicide hotline.

It’s easy to say “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” if you weren’t raised on stories of the Cossacks, the Inquisition, Anne Frank.

And it’s easy to say “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” if you’re financially stable – which most people my age aren’t. It’s not just that we’re college students; it’s also that we came of age in the worst economic time since the Great Depression. We need jobs, and we need them desperately.

When people condemn surveillance, they often have a picture in their heads of the Stasi, or the KGB – mysterious agencies that drag people away for saying the wrong thing. But in reality, the most pervasive negative consequence of surveillance isn’t violence at all. Instead, it’s the chilling of speech.

People behave differently in groups or public spaces than they do alone or among trusted friends. It’s always been that way – this change in behavior from public to private is just human nature.

Take Facebook, for example. Every college student knows that if a prospective employer sees photos of you drunk at a party on Facebook, you’re screwed. It doesn’t matter that this is totally normal behavior for college students; it’s deeply unprofessional, and it’ll hurt your chances of being hired.

With Facebook, the solution is easy: untag yourself in other people’s photos and don’t post any of your own. You can go to a party like a normal college student and still apply for jobs the next morning like a normal young adult.

But what if the eyes of your prospective employer aren’t only on Facebook the next day, but also at the party itself? What if there is no way to untag yourself in a photo and move on? What if, at an interview in 20 years, someone asks you about that essay you wrote when you were nineteen defending Communism that you now regret? What if, at an interview in 20 years, your interviewer already knows you’re queer?

Paranoid? Maybe. But with jobs scarce, Social Security stumbling as the Boomers prepare to retire, and enough student loan debt to kill a horse, most people my age literally can’t afford not to be paranoid. We can’t take any risk that would hurt our chances for jobs. We’re more vulnerable to the chilling effect than anyone else – and we deserve protection.

Which, again, brings me back to Students Against Surveillance:

We came to university thinking that we could learn with confidence, without fear that what we are studying or investigating could potentially be used against us. Given what we now know from Edward Snowden’s leaks, we no longer have that assurance. In an environment of mass surveillance, speech and academic freedom are chilled. People are afraid to speak freely. This is not a healthy environment for learning. – Students Against Surveillance website

So: if you’re a college student, please go sign the letter. If you were a college student at any point in the past, please go sign the letter. If you’re a professor, please go sign the letter. No matter who you are, please share it with your peers and friends.

I love college; I love getting to learn, explore, think. I know I owe academia a massive debt (metaphorically and, unfortunately, literally) for giving me this kind of environment to grow as a scholar and a person.

Starting a conversation about surveillance on college campuses is part of what I’m doing to try and pay that debt back. It’s nothing more and nothing less than an attempt to protect and defend the environment that helped me.


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