This night four years ago found us in a very special place, a retreat more accustomed to housing guests of the nation than folk like us. We took full advantage and went for a crepuscular walk once we were locked into the estate. We had the freedom of an entire domain until dawn.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Privacy Act (1966, 1974) put teeth back into the mouth of truth in the USA. The UK followed suit in 2000 though Tony Blair regretted it later. That the right to privacy requires freedom of expression is a classic virtuous circle. It is the access to information that supports our freedoms. Those freedoms come to us from information that we can access. The inverse is that subjugations and tyranny are made tractable by suppression of information.
‘No one leaks without an agenda.’
To ‘neither confirm nor deny’ risks exposure if records ever surface. Such statements only work if there are no public records. Such potential outcomes for individuals encourage the hiding and protection of adverse information.
These are some of the points that were discussed in Waterstones on Gower Street in London one April evening last year. I was lucky enough to be around and able to attend a panel discussion about ‘Writers Under Surveillance’.
The forum speakers included JPat Brown and co-author Beryl Lipton together with Jo Glenville former director of English PEN. It was very well moderated by Hannah Trevarthen (English PEN).
The book ‘Writers Under Surveillance’ (2018) is based on FBI files and co-authors Brown, Lipton and Morisey later went on to publish about scientists and activists whose surveillance files have also become public. One item they mention on their web site appeals both to my ironic and suspicious selves. Science fiction author Ray Bradbury was an FBI target because an informant warned that science fiction was a Soviet plot to weaken American resolve.
This was a good discussion and an evening that provoked me to make some notes of many thoughts that arose from the discussions. One thought in particular stayed with me: If trust in the state is assumed, isn’t it true that our confidence is undermined if the state no longer trusts the individuals?
Some of the other notes seem apposite given the answers I might offer today:
i) Does social media enable weaponisation of banalty forever?
– Today, I might consider that tweeting matters of state is an increasingly common practice that is demeaning and undermines the authority of the state.
ii) Is the Christian concept of original sin being recreated by the state through the increasing surveillance that suggests everyone is born under suspicion?
– Like many, I thought the concept for Minority Report was brilliant. Sadly, American jails already have many inmates whose recidivism has been predicted by algorithms. Such predictions make it hard for the individuals on parole boards to take a personal risk. Thus they chose to deny parole because they would be blamed more than the offender in the case of an offence they knew would happen. ‘Innocence before guilt’ is subsumed by ‘Recidivist ’til death’. All elements of rehabilitation in incarceration are lost. The concepts of Christian forgiveness are compromised among irrational fundamentalists.
iii) Doesn’t globalisation help protect us all?
– It seems to me that we are at risk of ‘de-globalisation’ after the pandemic. The beneficiaries of this will be the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, or Shanghai Pact (SCO). They are thinking longer term; while Atlantic-centric nations play election-cycle checkers, the Asian-centric nations are playing generation-cycle chess. Or think about tigers and bears challenging eagles and lions for supremacy while remembering that donkeys have been elected to lead the latter two.
iv) Has Facebook become the ‘goto’ for missing people and address checks? Who has control of this form of surveillance information?
– Yesterday, I found an obituary notice and learned that a friend who was dead in 2015 survived his partner in 2018. I’m not sure if this is better or worse than having Facebook reminders that three long-dead friends haven’t heard from me for a while. Is there truth in algorithm?