Feature

Spying: A paradox of democracy

“Spying” has become a sensitive word for many Indonesians.

Australia’s intelligence agency, the Defense Signals Directorate, reportedly monitored President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s cell phone activity for 15 days in August 2009, intercepting at least one phone call, when former prime minister Kevin Rudd was in power, according to secret documents leaked by US National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden and reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

In her latest book, Spying on Democracy, US author Heidi Boghosian, an executive director at the National Lawyer’s Guild, helps us understand how and why espionage remains inevitable in the era of democracy.

Boghosian explains that spying has been going on for thousands of years. Alexander the Great built an empire in the fourth century BC with innovations in military tactics and strategy that in their bare form continue to be used today.

Alexander used stealth and reconnaissance against enemies at war; the US government now conducts surveillance and military counterintelligence operations not just on foreign countries but also on law-abiding US citizens.

The writer noted that those citizens’ regard for spying has gone form outrage to complacency. In the 1970s, the American public was galvanized in anger toward the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other government intelligence agencies that were spying on domestic dissidents and ordinary citizens.

For instance, Cold War fears under former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover spawned counterintelligence programs to disrupt domestic peace groups and to discredit and neutralize public figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and leaders of political movements such as the Puerto Rican Independence Party.

This book gets even more interesting when Boghosian describes how US government intelligence agencies have also spied on the press.

On several occasions federal authorities spied on two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, James Risen. ABC News reported in 2006 that the FBI had confirmed it was tracking the incoming and outgoing phone calls of journalists in leak investigations, without their knowledge, to determine the identities of confidential sources.

Readers will also learn that its not just governments that spy. Disney and McDonalds, along with many other corporations, lure children into online worlds or amusement parks where personal information is collected in exchange for special rewards.

What such big corporations do could be categorized as normalizing cultural obedience through surveillance. Normalization is the process by which we accept and take for granted ideas and actions that previously may have been considered shocking or taboo. Michel Foucault wrote that modern control over society may be accomplished by watching its members, and maintaining information about them and their routines.

Consisting of 14 chapters, this book reminds the reader of how paradoxical spying is to democracy.

While democracy places sovereignty in the hands of the people, espionage puts power into the hands of the military or other institutions. Spying on democracy at home is seamlessly connected to military intelligence and intervention abroad.

Weapons of war used for national defense abroad are now being deployed against people at home. Military hardware such as drones, originally intended for tracking and killing enemy combatants in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, are now used on US soil.

For those who are familiar with George Orwell’s 1984, shocking data and facts exposed in Boghosian’s book echo the novel. In 1984, the all-seeing state is represented by a two-way television set installed in each home. In our own modern adaptation, it is symbolized by the location-tracking cell phones we willingly carry in our pockets and the microchip-embedded clothes we wear on our bodies.

Rather than advancing freedom and equality, inescapable surveillance enforces a form of authoritarianism that undermines both. It degrades the ability of members of society to challenge and organize against government and corporate injustices. The loss of cultural freedom stifles individual creativity and the unfettered community interaction necessary to keep power in check and to advance as an evolving society.

Reading this book, one realizes that the US government has initiated a double standard in its attempts to define democracy through the spying policy. Instead of creating national safety by means of mass surveillance, the constant monitoring of people while they shop, ride in elevators, tour museums, stand in line at banks, use ATMs or merely walk down street has the opposite effect.

Surveillance does not make people safer. Resisting by declaring allegiance to all who dare to defend their rights and freedoms by exercising them are the custodians of democracy.

Spying on Democracy
Heidi Boghosian
City Lights Publishers, 2013
352 pages

Paper Edition | Page: 3

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