Is Surveillance by the NSA Just? Part II (On Sartre, Privacy, and the Other)

New revelations from old Snowden disclosures tell of the intelligence successes of internet surveillance, and prolonged intrusions into private affairs. No longer can it be said, as it had in the past, that the NSA has nothing to show for its surveillance program – documentation of foiled terrorist attacks has been read by journalists at the Washington Post. But, importantly, it can no longer be said that the NSA does not store information it knows to be irrelevant to matters of terrorism. Both claims were suspected to be false, but now it is known that indeed they are fallacious. While the fact that the programs have prevented terrorism go great lengths in justifying said programs, that the degree of surveillance of the populace is so all-consuming that the government stores notes on medical records, extra-marital affairs, religious conversions, and mental health concerns, among other private events, is frightfully threatening, because it confronts us with ourselves.

Jean-Paul Sartre says that to see a person is to be seen by that person. He means this not in that they necessarily see us, but in that if we see them they exist for us such that we exist for them. We do not see the eyes in the look of the other in that we do not know what they see exactly. Rather, we know that we have been seen, and it is enough to make us aware of what we are at that moment in our facticity – the facts about our person and character. Without the other we live in immediacy and we are not self-aware.

As an example, Sartre notes that when we spy through a crack in the door or the keyhole we are merely that sneakiness and jealousy. When we hear the footsteps of the other behind us we think we are in the look of the other. We feel we are seen and accordingly that we are being seen as sneaky, and that we cannot deny it — the look of the other tells us that we are our jealousy. The look of the other tells us who we are.

It is this phenomenon that is so threatening about government surveillance. It is not that we are worried that we will be prosecuted by the government or persecuted by members of the bureaucracy; we know no one is our judge by our self. In having privacy on the internet we can distance ourselves from our actions on the web, as it is only too easy to rationalize certain purchases, certain videos watched, certain questions googled. But when we know we are being watched on the Internet, we find it harder to deny that we are the person who watches those videos and buys those things, as those acts are all the NSA sentinels can see. The realization that we are being watched confronts us with the reality of our actions on the internet as ours. The look of the other tells us who we are, and the watchful eye of the government tells us that we are our actions and choices on the Internet.

The question becomes whether this entails that we should change the extent of government surveillance, or whether we should change ourselves, and act on the Internet as the persons we would like to be.

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  1. #1 by SelfAwarePatterns on July 12, 2014 - 9:34 pm

    Interesting points. I don’t know if there is a right or wrong answer to this. It seems like national security will always require some degree of spying. It will always be a compromise between our freedom (in the form of privacy) and safety. I suspect we’ll always be more tolerant of the NSA watching us when we feel threatened, and alarmed by it when we feel more secure. Of course, some of us will always choose the freedom value while others always choose the safety one, and the rest of us will have to decide where on the spectrum that we’re most comfortable.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on July 14, 2014 - 7:32 pm

      Very true! My point in this little piece was to suggest how difficult it is to come to any firm conclusions on this matter of political policy, in a way analogous to the difficulty of resolving existential crises. Ain’t gonna happen! Both matters are too complexly psychological to attempt to come to an answer that works for all, someone will always disagree in a significant way. And this coming from a moral realist! lol

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. #3 by jmeqvist on July 13, 2014 - 10:31 pm

    This is a thoughtful entry.

    It seems that the gaze of the other in the form of surveillance might make us realize that we need to change ourselves, but this does not mean that there is nothing problematic about the degree of spying itself. I do not think you were trying to suggest that these two considerations are mutually exclusive, but I just wanted to put that point out there.

    I think developed societies tend to have a fixation on security which, rightly or wrongly, legitimates NSA style surveillance, but this fixation seems to have its roots in a very genuine concern to preserve the safety of all at any cost. But I don’t think a concern for privacy completely captures our unease over NSA style surveillance. Rather, I think part of our unease is related to the fact that with NSA style surveillance the state becomes completely alien to the people. The state is no longer the expression of the people, but rather something that merely watches over us like a shepherd over his flock. And this image of the state has more in common with despotism or tyranny than images of constitutional democracy. Our unease is not just related to our privacy being invaded, but that this invasion of privacy signifies an image of the state which is frightening and contrary to typical liberal democratic self-understandings of the state.

    • #4 by ausomeawestin on July 14, 2014 - 7:48 pm

      Thanks for the kind words! I’m in complete agreement with the notion that even if the gaze of the other suggests that we are embarrassed by our actions and thus should change those actions, it still might be problematic that we are so thoroughly spied on.

      And I think you are correct that a concern for the despotic nature of broad surveillance plays a role in the resentment of the NSA. I, for one, think there is something inegalitarian in broad surveillance, as it makes citizens insecure about their choices and made to feel disrespected — contrary to contemporary egalitarian ideals of equal respect being shown to all. This piece on Sartre was meant to explore some of the psychological/existential side of this egalitarian critique of surveillance, so it’s worth noting that I agree with your assessment on the threat to democracy that broad-scale surveillance poses.

      Thanks for your excellent comments.

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