Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Spying: America is Worse Than the Soviet Union

-- By ElizabethParizh - 13 Mar 2020

I. Introduction

My parents left the Soviet Union in 1991, right as it was falling apart. They had experienced first-hand with the way the USSR had used its powers to spy on its citizens and deny them the right to be free from government interference in their daily lives. This influenced how they interacted with people around them because they knew that if they said the wrong thing, they could be arrested and possibly killed. Even with this background, they have mentioned that modern American culture might be even worse.

II. Life in the Soviet Union

Both of my parents have told me about how they had to be careful about everything they discussed. While they knew that all of their friends and family disagreed with the Communist Party and had a lot to say against it, they could only discuss it with people they fully trusted. Otherwise anyone could tell on them to the KGB. If someone was telling a story that might reflect poorly on the Party, and someone else happened to walk past and overhear, the one listening and the passerby had to race to report the storyteller or both could lose their job or even end up in prison. During Stalin’s time, the punishment was even more severe, often ending with people getting killed, as happened with my great-grandfather’s brothers. Several specific situations showed that there was no such thing as secrets from the KGB. As a teenager, my mom was a tour guide for foreigners visiting St. Petersburg. After each tour, even high school-aged tour guides were required to disclose everything they heard, particularly if it was against the USSR. My mom always stated that no one had said anything out of the ordinary, but a different guide might have provided more details. She has also told me other stories, but even now, years later, is too scared for them to be shared. And this was all before the digital age, meaning people did not use computers and only some had a telephone in their home.

III. Spying in the United States

The United States did not go through the same experience as the Soviet Union with the KGB. During the Cold War, the US government wanted to listen to everything happening abroad. However, initially Americans were protected against such spying. They believed they were exempt from the general rules. All of that changed with the Vietnam War, when the government realized it was engaged in asymmetric conflicts where the adversaries were spending much less on the war and instead engaging in guerilla warfare. This changed the strategy from using regular war tactics to focusing more on finding those who did not want to be found. The US began using illegal tactics to fight in areas where guerillas had sanctuaries, which began to lessen the protections offered to citizens. But there was still not the same reporting on friends and family as there had been during the Soviet Union. The spying in the US only increased in the 1990s with better code breaking abilities. The listeners corrupted the engineering that kept secrets to get access, creating compilations of big data. Once the Soviet Union dissolved, we did not have to spy on a nuclear empire, freeing us to spy on the entire world to look for people plotting mass murders. After a while, Americans no longer had the privilege of not being listened to. Eben Moglen, Snowden lecture. Over the past thirty years, this has only increased.

III. Technology and the Future of Spying

The advent of technology changed the dynamic even further. With the internet, there was no longer one target on one circuit, and there was no more distinguishing between home and abroad. Moglen. If there was any spying, it would include American citizens. Not that Americans immediately realized this – it was done in secret, and they did not know to resist. Snowden mentioned that analysts justified anything that could be useful, while disclosing what the NSA was doing, so he was immediately dealt with as a whistleblower. Moglen. He was trying to warn us, but the government tried to stop him. Even so, Americans still believe in some level of privacy. By this they mean secrecy, so only those a message is intended for receives it, anonymity, so secrecy of who is involved, and autonomy, so they ability to make these choices freely. Moglen. In the first few years of the 21st century, people continued to believe they had these rights, but the government was actively taking them away without our consent or any other restrictions on the listening. As technology has improved, the problem has only been exacerbated, with the government having only more ways to spy on people and people becoming more complacent to it. In a way, this is worse than the situation in the Soviet Union. There, everyone knew they were being spied on, so they behaved appropriately. They were careful about who they talked to and what they said, they did not read anything that could be interpreted as anti-USSR, and they certainly would not have accepted anything that spied on them further. But in America, consumers do not care about what the government does as long as their life is convenient. If turning on location settings on a phone allows the government to track where you are, that is fine as long as you can use the GPS. If ordering something online shows everything you are interested in, that is fine as long as you can stay home. If having a self-driving car allows the government to not only know where you are going but also control how you are going, that is fine as long as you do not have to put forth the effort to drive. And people would not mind if even more was automated, even if the government could monitor and control it. They do not realize it could become the next Soviet Union.

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r1 - 13 Mar 2020 - 13:37:53 - ElizabethParizh
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