Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Beyond “The Right to Privacy”: A New Look at the Surveillance Debate (1)

Brad Littlejohn


By Brad Littlejohn

September 27, 2013

This article is the first installment in a two-part series.

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden set off a firestorm early this summer by leaking documents exposing the nature and extent of US government surveillance programs. He claimed that what he wanted above all was to provoke a debate about what sort of surveillance our society thought was appropriate. Whatever else you think about him, he certainly succeeded in that. Although the news media and public policy pundits have found other topics to spotlight over the last three months, Snowden’s steady release of new revelations has kept the debate simmering without any clear resolution. 

Given the terms of the debate, it seems doomed to sterility: a tradeoff between the “right to privacy” and the “responsibility to protect.”  We are stuck within a zero-sum game, an endless tug-of-war between private and public, between cherished rights and gnawing fears, that will forever sway back and forth depending on which sentiment is currently foremost in the public’s mind. This has been particularly uncomfortable for the right, exposing the deep-seated tensions between its hawkish, security-first impulses, which were in the ascendancy following September 11, and its libertarian, “don’t tread on me” impulses, which have come to the fore during the Obama administration. 

In this week’s commentary, I reflect on some of the problems that framing the issue as privacy vs. security generates.  Next week, I will sketch a more fruitful framework to guide our reflections, even if it will still not yield us any easy answers.

The parties in this debate take “a right to privacy” as a given. Although I’m not advocating that we all snoop in one another’s bedrooms, I do want to problematize this notion a bit, as we academics like to say. This way of speaking feeds off of, and feeds into, a contemporary valorization of the private that would have seemed very strange to many of our ancestors. Our word “private” has a close etymological kinship to “privation.” Both come from the Latin privatus, meaning “deprived,” and the private realm was that sphere of life that was deprived of society, publicity, and the meaningfulness of action undertaken in the context of community. This sphere was much smaller in most earlier societies than what we know now. Homes, even when not shared with numerous extended family members, were comparatively porous places where most of life was lived before the eyes of the surrounding community, for better or worse.  Various forms of communal or conditional ownership were more common, and “private property” was rarely conceived in the absolutistic terms it is today. 

Our contemporary retreat into zones of self-imposed isolation, although often articulated as a libertarian protest against a repressive “Big Brother” government, has in fact helped consolidate central state power by dissolving the intermediate institutions and communities that used to give structure to society. So we become used to the phenomenon of the sociopath who holes up in his basement, ignored by “friends” and neighbors, and one day emerges to go on a killing spree. Such a vacuum of oversight, created by our fetishization of privacy, invites the intrusion of government surveillance, which then requires us to trade some of our beloved privacy for security. In other words, because we no longer have neighbors or church leaders watching over us, for better or for worse, we have bureaucrats with software watching over us. 

These realizations should temper some of the outrage at the revelation of government surveillance initiatives. Our contemporary concept of “privacy” is in large part a cultural construction, rather than an inalienable natural right, and its boundaries are not clearly defined. Moreover, it is a cultural construction that is more imaginary ideal than reality. Our “privacy” is constantly infringed upon by the companies with whom we do business, and increasingly the internet has made many aspects of our daily lives more transparent to others than ever; Google and Facebook already know at least as much about us as the NSA does. Indeed, it appears that the rising generations, accustomed to life in “the Cloud,” have made peace with this reality and are more likely to shrug their shoulders at privacy concerns. (This, incidentally, is a problem with the view that suggests just leaving it to the people to determine how much privacy they are willing to trade for security; this is to subject public justice to the whims of generational preferences, with no objective compass.)

Rather than accepting terms of debate that treat the question of surveillance as a tragic trade-off, a perpetual balancing act between incommensurable but vaguely-defined goods, we need a way of setting the issue within the context of our reflections about justice as a whole. This, which I shall attempt to do in the second part of this essay, may help us arrive at some objective norms to guide our practice, rather than mere preferential tradeoffs.            

- Brad Littlejohn is completing a Ph.D. in Reformation political theology at the University of Edinburgh. He writes frequently for a number of blogs (especially his own) on the history of Christian ethics and political thought and on contemporary Christian perspectives on politics and economics.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”