An open and protected discourse is vital to a healthy democracy. Documents released over the past few years have revealed that the surveillance and monitoring capabilities of the United States government are far more advanced than previously known.
Even if the capabilities are simply theoretical, they have a dangerous effect on the U.S. and the world. The government would not have to actually possess any of the capabilities that the leaks have described. Simply allowing the world to believe that the capabilities exist is enough to cause a chilling effect on a significant portion of the world’s population.
Many of the capabilities are designed to target non-state actors. They operate under the policy of soaking up all the information they can and later sifting through it to find interesting data points. Because of this, journalists, government dissenters, and everyday citizens within the U.S. or an allied country should assume that their communications are readily accessible to authorities.
According to a report published by the PEN American Center at http://poly.rpi.edu/s/w37w1/, 16 percent of writers surveyed “have avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic, and another 11 percent have seriously considered it” due to the climate effected by pervasive electronic surveillance. Additionally, “24 percent have deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations, and another 9 percent have seriously considered it.”
The United States enjoys one of the most liberal freedom of expression regimes in the world. According to the courts, the government cannot suppress speech by reason of its going against a desired narrative, unpopularity, or dislike. However, the burgeoning internet surveillance apparatus is causing speakers to self-censor and suppress their own speech.
As people censor themselves in their conversations and communications, unpopular and divergent opinions will begin to disappear. If we cannot communicate without fear of a third-party monitoring our messages, the diversity of opinions will decrease. Eventually, all but mainstream ideas will cease to exist even in the minds of those who once thought them.
Without a wide variety of opinions in the commons, a democracy is no longer vibrant. The state becomes self-perpetuating and closed to change. The people lose their voices.
We must do everything that we can to ensure that these trends reverse. If you have something to say, say it as loudly as you can. Make sure your message can be heard. Use encrypted systems that are designed to prevent anyone besides the sender and recipient from viewing the contents of your communications. Call your representatives in Congress and tell them to oppose legislation such as the Burr-Feinstein Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016 and instead support strong encryption and a less invasive surveillance system, for a stronger democracy. And, when the next bill comes around, call again. And if that doesn’t work, vote them out of office.
We are on a slippery slope toward the end of meaningful peaceful dissent. But we can fight back by adopting more secure methods of communication and supporting political candidates who understand the importance of and will fight for privacy. Our country depends on it.