Thursday, July 10, 2008

Stress and Privacy

Yesterday the U.S. Senate passed a controversial bill to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). In addition to expanding the federal government’s ability to spy on American citizens, the bill provides retroactive immunity from civil prosecution to telecommunications companies for unspecified actions they have taken since 9/11/2001 at the request of the government. Constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley has a convincing case that the new law does extensive damage to the Constitutional guarantee of privacy under the Fourth Amendment.

The originators and supporters of the law apparently view privacy as a convenience that can be stripped away when the government becomes sufficiently paranoid about the people it serves. Unfortunately for those people, it is much more than that: it is a critical part of cultural infrastructure which reduces the chances of a population crash.

There is good reason to believe that humans, like other species, may be subject to increased stress as conditions force us to interact too much with each other, threatening to dramatically reduce our population through violence and vulnerability to disease. (This is likely the primary mechanism behind the decrease in population growth and predicted decline associated with noticeable resource depletion that underpins my consumption model.) In the absence of culturally enforced rights to privacy, such stress could easily increase, as anyone knows who is conscious of strangers constantly observing them.

When we don’t trust the people observing us, or believe they have a nefarious interest in doing so, the stress will be even greater. The growing evidence of criminal behavior by the current administration (led by a megalomaniacal bully who seems to care only about a small number of sociopaths) suggests that the degradation of privacy protection enabled by the FISA law could amplify this effect.

One way to sidestep the public’s negative reaction to their vulnerability is to control their awareness of just how bad the situation is. I suspect that media consolidation has been part of a larger strategy to keep people in the dark; but a growing unease among those who do know what’s going on is gradually disabling this firewall, aided in large part by the Internet.

Transparency and accountability, two key innovations embodied in the Constitution, must be asserted in force to counter the backlash that is building. I fear that the instincts of our leaders will argue for more intrusion, not less, which could be far more damaging in the long run as the stress is pushed over a threshold that leads to a fight-or-flight response.

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