Future Tense

What’s the Best Way to Tell Your Mother and Your Bosses Why They Should Protest Surveillance?

Demonstrators hold up a placard in support Edward Snowden in front of Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate.

Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

The people who want to spy on and store everything we say and do have created a singular advantage in their propaganda campaign for total surveillance——a slogan designed to shut down the debate before it begins. Here it is: “Terrorists will kill your children.”

It seems to make little difference in our risk-intolerant societies that the chances of terrorists actually doing this are vanishingly low. Just saying things like this lures normally rational people—and craven politicians—down an emotional cul-de-sac that leads to authoritarian policy-making.


That isn’t the only rhetorical trick favored by authoritarians. Everyone has heard variations on such lines as “You have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide”—which too many average folks short-sightedly translate into “I have nothing to hide, so it’s fine.”


Can we counter the dire warnings and slippery logic with language that is both truthful and pro-liberty? That question sparked a recent conversation among some people who are involved in technology and believe in civil liberties. We wondered whether we could come up with messages that would help a variety of folks—the general public, policymakers, business people, and technologists, among others—who also felt this way to make the case for curbing the surveillance states. We favored brevity but tried to avoid overly simplistic slogans.


Here are some of the pro-liberty arguments we thought would be useful (I’ve added several to our initial list), with a variety of audiences in mind. In each case, you’ll see a quote reflecting the basic thought, followed by a more thorough explanation. I like some better than others and hope you’ll pitch in to improve this list.

For everyday folks (e.g., explaining this to your mother):

  • “Government’s surveillance of—and interference with—our communications is making you less safe.” When the National Security Agency deliberately sabotages key parts of the encryption infrastructure that protects communications, it’s opening doors for criminals, not just law enforcement. Imagine that the government required you to use a crummy lock on your front door, so that local police—and your local burglars—could easily enter your home.
  • “You think you have nothing to hide? Great: Then you won’t mind if we install cameras around your home, including your bedroom and bathroom—and wear a camera and microphone as you go about your business outside—so other people can check on what you say and do at any time.” This may sound hyperbolic, but it’s not so much. Given the amount of our personal, business, and commercial lives that rely on digital communications, pervasive surveillance is already unveiling vast amounts of what we have rightly considered private in the past. If you are willing to go that far, it is not much further to have government spy on literally everything—because you never know when you might be suspected of something.
  • “America is about openness and personal freedom, starting with freedom of speech.” Total surveillance makes us afraid to speak our minds—we censor our own speech—because we worry that some government agency will decide, however unjustly, that we are a threat.
  • “The NSA has betrayed fundamental values of American liberty. What it is doing is un-American.” The Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, is all about our belief that having liberty means taking some risks. For example, we allow some guilty people to go free in order to protect innocent people from being punished for crimes they didn’t commit. By collecting everyone’s communications, or key parts of them, the government has effectively repealed the Fourth Amendment. Do you believe in liberty?
  • “The government has a back door into your online commerce and a master key to your computer.” If the government does, so do the smarter crooks. Feeling safer now?


For business people:

  • “It hurts American business, hurts the U.S. brand, and hurts consumer confidence in the online economy.” When U.S. technology and communications companies cooperate with government surveillance, willingly or not, their customers can’t trust them. So they will lose business. And a lack of trust in American companies is bad for America as a whole.
  • “It violates the fundamental privacy of electronic transactions and threatens corporate integrity in the process.” Financial matters are intensely private, and opening them to possible invasions from criminals and malicious hackers is bad enough. When sellers can’t assure customers of best practices, their own integrity is harmed.
  • “It should create a competitive advantage opportunity for businesses willing to stand up for their customers and the protection of secure transactions and communications.” The key word is “should”—but the government hacking of the system, and laws prohibiting companies from telling customers that their records are being collected, mean that the normal competitive system isn’t allowed to work.
  • “Should U.S. technology companies be viewed differently than the Chinese suppliers that are widely believed to allow backdoors for government surveillance?” Cloud computing and hosted technology services remain one of the IT areas where the United States still commands overwhelming competitive advantage. But if you are a foreign government or business investing in digital infrastructure, what confidence do you have that the U.S. solution is not a proxy for spies?


To technologists:

  • “The government has betrayed the Internet by commandeering it.” You have worked hard for years on the assumption that you were deploying your technology on a robust and, to the extent possible, secure infrastructure. Now you know that the government has asserted basic ownership of that infrastructure, and everything that uses it.
  • “Don’t be a part of the problem.” If your company is cooperating with the NSA and other federal agencies to invade everyone’s privacy (and if you are based in America you must assume it is), you should talk with your colleagues about the implications of that cooperation, including its impact on your customers and ultimately your business. If you are one of the people who’s been tampering with your products to give the NSA backdoors into your technology, you should be ashamed.
  • “Stand up for liberty, by building better security. You can help!” We need you to help fix what has been broken. If you want us to trust you in the future—and if you want to be able to tell your children that you stood up for freedom when it counted—you have a clear choice. We’re counting on you to make the right one.


To Washington:

  • “This is a bipartisan issue.” People in both parties are recognizing the danger of the surveillance state. You are either on the side of liberty or the side of authoritarian control.
  • “The government must demonstrate accountability and transparency for its surveillance programs.” By creating secret laws and courts and by telling even judges and members of Congress that they have no right to know what the government is doing, we have undermined the checks and balances that a democracy depends on. Without accountability, government crimes will go unpunished. This threatens everyone.
  • “Has any government gone down the path of total surveillance without turning into a totalitarian state?” Government surveillance of all communications inevitably will lead to government oversight of your life. Is that what you want?

So there’s an initial list. We could use more, and I’m sure they all could use some refining. Please help out by making suggestions for improvements in the comments. We need to work on restoring our liberties together.