Who Watches the Watchkeepers?

Many Stanford students’ attitudes towards the NSA leaks by Edward Snowden have been somewhat passive, resulting from the claim that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. This opinion is dangerous to hold, according to several Stanford faculty and students specializing in privacy, democracy, and civil rights. Anyone interested in civil rights, personal privacy, or free speech in oppressed countries should be having a conversation about the leaks and to the extent a government should surveil its people. Larry Diamond, Stanford professor and democracy program coordinator at the CDDRL, suggests that a passive attitude is dangerous not just to individuals, but also to a democratic society.

If there is no objection to the surveillance and a subsequent conversation between the people and the government, the implied precedent for the state is to continue or expand surveillance in the future. Even members of society who have nothing to hide can contribute to the protection of privacy for individuals who need it — for example, individuals and groups trying to raise awareness on controversial issues that require anonymity. Terry Winograd, Professor Emeritus and founder of the Liberation Technologies Program at Stanford, suggests that his use of the internet can affect the ability of these groups to convey their message without fear of being discovered.

The surveillance is also a concern in countries with strict censorship policies. Particularly in countries with oppressive governments that surveil their citizens, privacy is of utmost concern.

If more people use anti-surveillance measures such as Tor, however, people in censored countries will be better protected by such anonymizing technologies. The United States surveillance measures and the civilian response sets a precedent for surveillance in other countries. In response to this concern, Zak Whittington ‘15, a Political Science major, co-founded the Association for Liberation Technology at Stanford. The mission of ALT is to get computer science students interested in NGOs, non-profits, and the social impact of computing. Whittington expressed concern that Stanford students have been passive about the NSA leaks.

“Even if the leaks don’t affect Stanford students directly, — which, for the most part, they do not — students should be concerned because it affects people in other countries,” said Whittington. “The leaks demonstrated a complete disregard for the rule of law by the NSA, which other, more brutal countries are taking as a signal that mass surveillance is permissible.”

Whittington also believes in privacy as a basic human right, which is being invaded by the NSA’s current practices.

Diamond similarly expressed that the current level of blanket surveillance by the NSA is at odds with the United States Constitution.

Stanford students and faculty should be asking themselves not only what kind of society they want to create for themselves, but also what precedent we as citizens of the United States want to set for other countries. Students interested in joining the discussion on privacy can join the Association for Liberation Technology or look into the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford.

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