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Privacy Perspectives | While Demanding NSA Reform, Let’s Avoid Watergate Stereotypes Related reading: MEPs send thoughts on draft AI rules to European Commission leaders


You may have heard this weekend folks will be taking to the streets of Washington to demand an end to what many believe has become a surveillance state in light of the NSA’s programs revealed this past summer.

Whenever folks take to the streets, it’s easy to harken back to the 1960s and ’70s. And when it comes to Americans’ mistrust of government, it’s easy to conjure up images of President Nixon and Watergate. Well, in some ways it’s like 1974 all over again. Fears about government spying are back in the U.S. and as strong as ever.

This weekend’s event has been organized by Stop Watching Us—a coalition of more than 100 public “advocacy organizations and companies from across the political spectrum.”

And the cast behind the movement is impressive. In addition to the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other privacy advocacy organizations, Stop Watching Us has garnered the backing of politicians and, perhaps most importantly, movie and rock stars. Here’s a video the group just put out:

It appears that privacy has become a legitimate cause celebre. Celebrities have been backing political issues for decades; and when celebrities get involved, partisanship tends to find its place as well. Think of Jane Fonda’s visit to North Vietnam or Clint Eastwood’s “conversation” with President Barack Obama.

Now, I’m not saying that what John Cusack and Maggie Gylenhaal are doing equates to the examples above, but notice the inclusion in the video of the great bogeyman of the 1970s, former President Richard Nixon. Yes, whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg may have effected huge changes in American foreign policy by helping end the Vietnam War, but the Nixon footage also brings up visceral memories for those who lived it, and the stereotypes passed on to those too young for that time period.

So, will that mean privacy will turn into a partisan issue?

When it comes to government regulation of private industry, we often see the standard political fault lines. Folks on the left tend to want government to take a role in protecting consumers, while folks on the right tend to want the government to stay away from regulation.

But this surveillance issue, thus far, is different.

For example, notice in the movie, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) says we’ve been misled. You may also notice that the D.C. rally will include speeches from Tea Party stalwart Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) AND liberal Rock of Gibraltar and former Congressman Dennis Kucinich. Meanwhile, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) says metadata collection is not surveillance, while party-mate Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) simultaneously backs NSA reform.

The political fault line doesn’t seem to be as apparent. But will this cause celebre give rise to something a bit more traditional? When Hollywood speaks out about an issue—whether it’s environmentalism or [place hot-button issue here]—there tends to be a more right-v-left political reaction. Will anti-Hollywood politicians and their constituents begin to shy away from any attempts to reform the NSA’s surveillance programs?

Will the public—who are generally not embroiled in the day-to-day world of privacy and data protection—begin equating privacy with the NSA en bloc? There’s a lot more to privacy issues than that, right? What about commercial data collection from data brokers and online mega sites? And on top of that, does the general public know about National Security Letters and FISA requests placed on companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter and so on? Clearly, groups such as the EFF, ACLU and EPIC do their damnedest to educate the public about these issues.

But will privacy now become a politically charged topic?

If so, what will that mean for privacy pros? Will it change how people within an organization perceive them? Will some equate privacy pros with crusading heroes while others envision them as some sort of left-leaning, pink-o commies? I’m simplifying the issue a bit here, but the point is, will privacy become a charged topic like environmentalism, or abortion or same-sex marriage or Watergate?

True, a rally such as Stop Watching Us has the opportunity to educate folks about the issues—and I hope it does. I hope a boatload of people show up. But we must ask, will this cause celebre bring us back to the reactionary tendencies born in the 1970s or will it help break through to something entirely new and unfounded?

Update, Monday, October 28:

Saturday's rally drew thousands of protesters, according to the Washtington Times, and Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) was presented with 575,000 signatures demanding an end to the NSA's bulk data collection programs. One speaker said, "This is not a right versus left issue, it's a right versus wrong issue." Here is a video provided by the EFF highlighting the day's events:

1 Comment

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  • comment S. Harmon • Oct 29, 2013
    You raise an interesting point.  The NSA/Snowden saga has made surveillance an issue of the moment.  However, the larger privacy threats you mention(data brokers, online sites, etc.) don't garner nearly as much attention in the form of protests but are areas where greater regulation is needed.  Moreover, we pay attention to the big players like Google and Facebook, but small businesses are handling private data too and need to be educated on how best to protect consumer information. So, whether this particular NSA/Snowden privacy issue garners public attention and grabs the attention of celebrities, I think a host of privacy issues exist that aren't subject to becoming the of-the-moment issue and then ignored.  
    S. Harmon
    Jones Harmon Communications, Inc.