To End Government Spying, Stop Buying Stuff

The thrust of Robert Scheer’s new book, They Know Everything About You, is that the U.S. government’s mass surveillance and permanent storage of everything you do on the internet is piggybacking on Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, AOL, Yahoo, and other companies that suck up and permanently store every scrap of information about you that they can lay their virtual hands on — and that this data mining is driven primarily by the profit to be gained from carefully targeted advertising.

In other words, corporations’ desire to place the ideal piece of consumer crap under your nose has facilitated the government’s ability to intimidate and preempt activism, and to prosecute and convict on the basis of impressively technical circumstantial evidence. This is unfair in at least two ways. First, and most obviously, it is a gross violation of our rights, an assault on self-governance, a move toward totalitarianism. Facebook is openly running experiments manipulating users’ emotions. The Pentagon is buying similar studies from the same academics of how to prevent activist movements — studies that equate peace activism with violent terrorism. Google is deciding which news you should see and hiring the head of DARPA to head its own private DARPA. The owner of the Washington Post has a much larger investment in providing Amazon’s services to U.S. spy agencies. Privatized spy agency contractors (a gift of the Bill Clinton presidency) are hacking into computers around the world with hostile intent and with zero public authorization. The Chamber of Commerce apparently has a free pass to target its critics with hacking and smears and traps set with false leaks. Reporter Michael Hastings dies mysteriously when investigating government tech contractors, and Barrett Brown lands in prison just for linking to embarrassing information. All of this is beginning to be understood and resented. Scheer’s book is a great primer on much of it.

Second, and perhaps less obviously, it strikes me as unfair that people like me who have never ever, not even once, clicked on an advertisement or bought anything displayed to me in an advertisement on any of my electronic devices, have to have every move we make surveilled, just because the rest of you are tolerating advertising, clicking on advertising, heeding the commands of advertising, and buying shit. I’ve had to show up at a nonviolent peaceful protest of war and have the New York Police Department officials make clear to me that they had been reading my email earlier that day, because you thought that some shiny new product you had absolutely no need of was adorable. Does this seem fair? Does it seem like a wise setting of priorities? When politicians urge shopping as civic duty, shouldn’t we hear in that not only the maintenance of a perverse economic system but also the development of a surveillance state the Soviets never dreamed of, driven by profit, and co-opted by a government that has merged with Silicon Valley until nobody can tell where one stops and the other begins?

According to Scheer the internet has persuaded people that privacy is the same thing as anonymity, and that visibility is far more valuable, as well as that corporate surveillance is of no concern and completely unlike government surveillance. Edward Snowden’s revelations, Scheer writes, exposed corporate complicity with government surveillance, threatening corporations’ reputations with their customers. But reform proposals that Scheer cites, such as requiring a new click on an “AGREE” button each time a company sells data on you to a third party, have not been created. The European “right to be forgotten” — that is to have undesired information about oneself removed from the internet — is not heard of in the United States, and to my mind is in sharp opposition to U.S. belief in the impossibility of redemption, the inherent good or evil of each person from birth to death, and the guilt of anyone accused of wrong doing.

Scheer quotes Lee Tien, attorney for Electronic Frontier Foundation, “There are no personal solutions to this; there is nothing we can do individually.” I assume this is based on the reasonable expectation that you won’t all stop buying stuff. But imagine the time and savings and security you would have if you did stop buying stuff. What harm would it do? You don’t even have to stop buying stuff. Just stop buying anything that’s advertised. Buy non-advertised goods. Consider that your civic duty.

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