As is becoming increasingly clear, the United States government is laying claim to virtually all forms of electronic communication. The latest revelations tell us that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been, since at least 2007, working with private corporations to monitor and archive the emails, phone calls, text messages, and internet browser histories of millions of people. The secret program, called PRISM, is part of a disturbing pattern of government surveillance in the years since 9/11.
While the details of these programs are still in the process of being disclosed, many Americans, as this New York Times piece suggests, have become resigned to the idea of a total lack of privacy in the digital age, assuming that nearly anything they type into an electronic device could be subjected to government snooping.
I’m certain that our students have internalized this notion. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, young people are increasingly aware that their internet activities, including on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, may be viewed by potential employers and factored into hiring decisions. This thought is horrifying enough, but the reality is that more than just employers are interested in mining your data: corporations want that information for advertising profits, and the national security apparatus wants to run your Tweets and status updates through A.I. keyword algorithms, collecting and archiving justifications for your future arrest and incarceration. Do I sound paranoid? Maybe. But with the New York State Assembly currently considering a law making it a felony (like, prison time) to “annoy” a police officer, please excuse my cynicism.
So, how do we address these issues as teachers of communication? Since it’s basic psychology (and physics) that the act of being observed alters a subject’s behavior, we can assume that the wide cultural awareness (whether conscious or unconscious) that our digital life is being observed by forces potentially hostile to our interests (whether those interests be securing employment, maintaining realities free of personally-tailored consumer propaganda, or avoiding being black-bagged and subjected to extraordinary rendition by private security agents) changes the way we and our students behave online. Since I’m the type of person that frequently experiments with charged political language on social media, I’m often running my thoughts through a legal processor in my mind before clicking “Post,” wondering if what I write might be projected on a screen in front of me someday while a cigar-chomping investigator asks me accusingly what I meant when I posted a photo of a kitten dressed up as Che Guevara on Christmas morning, 2008. And I’m afraid I won’t have a good answer.
Are my fears overblown? Again, maybe. I’ll concede that, being a historian of the Cold War era, I’ve internalized a certain amount of pathological distrust for giant security states. And I’m definitely pre-programmed to become immediately concerned that government surveillance intimidates and silences people that are working for social and economic change, exactly the kind of voices that we need to be listening to and honoring at this moment. But beyond the political stuff, I suppose my main concern for our students is that they will be even more cautious in their digital lives, fearing that they might not “get a job” if they post anything deemed offensive. While it’s important for them (and us) to be thoughtful about the ways that we communicate online, that impulse should not come from fear of punitive action from companies and governments. It’s frightening and disheartening to think that, at the very moment that humanity develops technology with seemingly infinite potential to foster connection and innovation, particularly for young people, elite forces are hard at work creating the practical and psychological frameworks to put severe limits on that evolution.