Phone Surveillance — We Can Do Better

I’m disquieted at the recent revelations of the U.S. governments massive surveillance of the phone logs of hundreds of thousands of Verizon customers.

Yes, it’s an invasion of privacy, but that’s not what bothers me so much. In this electronic age when so much of our lives are spent on-line, I’m realistic about the fact that there are many “thems” out there that know way more about me than I care to think about. Still, I go on-line.

Two things are particularly troubling. First, that it has all been couched in secrecy. We know only because someone leaked the information. Now after the horse is out of the barn President Obama says something about hoping that this incident will foster a healthy conversation about the tension between privacy and security in our country.

Why not have the conversation when the program was proposed? If it’s so good for us, then make the case and let’s have the debate beforehand instead of after when the conversation is prompted by an “Oops!” I find no consolation in the news that Congress knew about the program. Why didn’t the rest of us?

When what is done in secret is revealed mistakenly, it does nothing to further a sense of trust in our leaders. A certain measure of trust is required for the healthy exercise of democracy. When that trust if violated, particularly when it’s violated over and over, trust is replaced by suspicion and, worse, cynicism. Suspicion and cynicism are corrosive to our life together.

Here’s the other thing that is even more troubling. Not only does this secret surveillance program foster a sense of suspicion but it’s another way of telling us that we need to live in fear. “This is for your own good. There are bad things out there and we are just trying to protect you from them. You need us. Trust us. What little privacy you give up brings a hundredfold gain in security. It’s a terrifying world out there.”

This is not how mature societies operate. This is how societies that are falling into authoritarianism operate. It is not symptomatic of healthy, functional societies to teach their citizens to fear all the bad stuff out there and to be suspicious of the neighbor, because, you never know — the person right next door to you may be a terrorist. The more authoritarian a government becomes, the more it has to function on a fearful citizenry.  As citizens, we ought to be both skeptical and critical of any moves by our leaders that teach us to live in fear and that we need them to keep us safe.

I’m disappointed because I don’t believe this is God’s vision for how we ought to live together. The vision of the kingdom is where people live together in trust and a sense of acting for the common good, where there’s a mutual respect and care for one another. We all take responsibility for that; it’s not the king’s job; it’s the citizens’ job. In the community that we yearn for, we are not taught to distrust our neighbor; instead, we are compelled to live in relationship with our neighbor.

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