December 23, 2015

Privacy, Anonymity, Surveillance, and Atheism

Surveillance cameras.jpg
"Surveillance cameras." Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
Ask any of us whether we value our privacy, and we will almost certainly reply that we do. Take a look at how we behave, and you may have reason to question our claim to value privacy. At the very least, you might discover that we do not value the privacy of others quite as much as we value our own. But you might also discover that we are quite willing to trade away our own privacy, give up our anonymity, and subject ourselves to surveillance in exchange for empty promises of safety.

If you complain about the many threats to online privacy, including the suggestions from many Republican presidential candidates that we expand NSA surveillance or the calls from some on the authoritarian left that we end Internet anonymity to prevent "harassment," there is at least one response you can count on receiving. Someone will say, "If you aren't doing anything illegal or inappropriate, you don't have anything to fear." This response seems to enter virtually any discussion of privacy, anonymity, or surveillance.

I was thinking about this particular response the other day, and I had a couple quick thoughts I'd like to share that have to do with atheism. Of course, I'm not going to suggest that only atheists should care about things like privacy, anonymity, or surveillance. I believe these are things about which we should all care. And yet, I do think that these issues ought to make atheists living in religiously oppressive countries (or those with a history of being religiously oppressive) a bit more wary than others.

As you know, I write an atheist blog anonymously for a variety of reasons. I have addressed these reasons previously and will not rehash them here except to say that my primary reason has always been concern my career would be adversely affected if I were to be publicly linked to this blog. I live in an area where atheism is perceived as un-American, evil, and as a serious threat to cultural norms by a great many people. It would be one thing to tell people that I do not believe in their gods or even to identify myself as an atheist; it would be something entirely different to publicly attach myself to this blog. And so, I value my anonymity.

But online anonymity is only one issue when it comes to privacy. Do I have anything to fear from surveillance by the federal government? Probably not. I'm not doing anything illegal here, and I'm unlikely to be mistaken for a terrorist. I'm not calling for any sort of violent revolution, and it is unlikely that someone at the NSA would decide to publicly out me in my local community.

As someone who lived through the 1980s, I can remember a time when atheism meant something rather different from what it is at least beginning to mean today. I can imagine a different set of circumstances in which a government could view atheists as a potential threat and could treat us accordingly. For much of human history, freethought has been perceived as dangerous, and atheists have been regarded as potential enemies of the state. We have seen what such ignorance and bigotry can do when it gains traction and political power. While we have made progress to be sure, it is not inconceivable that some of this progress could erode or even be reversed.

It seems like the price we are being asked to pay for the illusion that we are safe from terrorism is the complete surrender of our privacy. No more anonymity, no reasonable expectation of privacy, and no freedom from surveillance. As far as I'm concerned, this is too high a price. Privacy was once something we valued, so much so that people used to take the Fourth Amendment quite seriously. I think we made some real mistakes with the Patriot Act in the aftermath of 9/11, and I fear we are on the verge of making more as some of our presidential candidates stoke fear.

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