Peter Singer needs his ivory tower windows cleaned.


Peter Singer

Peter Singer is a world-renowned moral philosopher, beloved of liberals, humanists and secularists everywhere. For decades he has published and lectured profusely on ethics concerning a broad range of subjects, notably bioethics, animal rights, world poverty and hunger, euthanasia, abortion, and George W. Bush. Singer is currently a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, the venerable Ivy League institution 50 miles outside of New York City.

Project-Syndicate published today an essay by Singer, in which he shares with us his thoughts about NSA’s domestic spying programs recently revealed by Edward Snowden. And my Lard, it’s a whopper of a jawdropper. The stunning ignorance of facts and history on display here has us seriously musing over the possibility that the good professor has, by the sheer force of his esteemed intellect, somehow propelled himself into an alternate universe. How else to explain this?

I don’t feel outraged. Based on what I know so far, I don’t really care. No one is likely to be reading my emails or listening in on my Skype calls. The volume of digital information that the NSA gathers would make that an impossible task.

I don’t even know where to begin. How about here: if it’s true that no one is likely to be reading your email or listening to your calls, it’s only because you present no meaningful opposition whatsoever to the status quo — which, need I remind you, is a corrupt, de facto oligarchy that benefits from perpetual war. So… congratulations, I guess? Or perhaps it’s just because you are not a journalist. The Associated Press seems pretty outraged over having 20 of their phone lines tapped for two months (including reporters’ personal numbers). What are they so worked up about, anyway? It’s not like the Obama administration’s actions have brought investigative journalism to a standstill or anything, or that this president will surpass Nixon as the worst president ever on national security and press freedom.

Oh wait.

Instead, computer programs mine the data for patterns of suspicious activity that intelligence analysts hope will lead them to terrorists.

Peter Singer thinks the data is only mined by computers and only for terrorism. How adorable.

The process is not all that different from the data collection and analysis that many corporations use to target their ads at us more effectively, or that give us the online search results that we are most likely to want.

Yes, yes, I can see that: there is obviously no meaningful difference between data collection and analysis by companies that want to optimize my Google search results or sell me a new floor lamp versus by the U.S. Department of Defense.

The question is not what information a government, or business, gathers, but what they do with it.

No, the question is precisely “what information a government, or business, gathers.” For one thing, the near-total merging of government with business has rendered any practical distinction between the two non-existent. But more importantly, we know exactly what they will do with it. They will of course do what governments always do with such information: entrench their own power and suppress dissent. We know this from, you know, pretty much all of history — including the recent history of the United States.

I would be outraged if there were evidence that – for example – the US government was using the private information that it scoops up to blackmail foreign politicians into serving US interests, or if such information were leaked to newspapers in an effort to smear critics of US policies. That would be a real scandal.

Dear Dawg. The U.S. government has long been training tyrants and their military and police forces in torture and assassination to serve U.S. interests, engineering violent coups and murders to put and keep those who serve U.S. interests in power, deposing and otherwise interfering with democratically elected officials and others who have even the merest whiff of leftist tendencies, and backing brutal dictators around the world for the past century. But obviously, it is utterly preposterous to even suggest that the U.S. government would ever stoop so low to use NSA’s information to blackmail foreign politicians into serving U.S. interests. Perish the thought! And heaven forbid information were being leaked by the government to smear critics of U.S. policies: it’s not as if there is any precedent for that, or any reason whatsoever to suspect that it continues. Why, that would be a real scandal.

If, however, nothing of that sort has happened,

It almost certainly has.

and if there are effective safeguards in place to ensure that it does not happen,

There are not.

then the remaining question is whether this huge data-gathering effort really does protect us against terrorism,

It clearly does not.

and whether we are getting value for money from it.

To say nothing of the other costs we have paid to erect an enormous, unaccountable surveillance apparatus while militarizing the country’s police forces, or whether those astronomical sums would be better spent on, say, healthcare.

The NSA claims that communications surveillance has prevented more than 50 terrorist attacks since 2001. I don’t know how to evaluate that claim, or whether we could have prevented those attacks in other ways.

Well, I guess that’s that, then. Case closed!

The value-for-money question is even more difficult to assess. In 2010, the Washington Post produced a major report on “Top Secret America.” After a two-year investigation involving more than a dozen journalists, the Post concluded that no one knows how much US intelligence operations cost – or even how many people American intelligence agencies employ.

*shrug* Whatever.

At the time, the Post reported that 854,000 people held “top secret” security clearances. Now that figure is reported to be 1.4 million. (The sheer number of people does make one wonder whether misuse of personal data for blackmail or other private purposes is inevitable.)

Yeah, it’s a mystery whether that would ever happen.

But you know, I don’t feel outraged. Based on what I know so far, I don’t really care.

1 thought on “Peter Singer needs his ivory tower windows cleaned.

  1. Pingback: Peter Singer needs his ivory tower windows cleaned. | Citizen Journalists Exchange

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