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.