• Guest Post: Drones And The Right To Privacy


Submitted by James E. Miller of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada,

On August 6th, the small town of Deer Trail, Colorado is set to vote on an ordinance that will permit the hunting of unmanned surveillance drones. The author of the ordinance, Phillip Steel, claims the gesture is “symbolic.” In an interview with a local ABC News affiliate, Steel attested that he does “not believe in the idea of a surveillance society.” The Florida Legislature recently passed a law barring federal government drones from “gathering evidence or other information” on citizens of the state. A handful of other American states are pursuing measures to limit the spying operations of Uncle Sam’s unmanned aerial vehicles.

The pushback against Washington’s snoop activities is a nice development. It’s unfortunate that these state laws and local ordinances will not amount to anything significant. The federal government is the divine master of what was once known as the individual states. Federalism – the idea that sovereignty is shared between hierarchical governing bodies under one umbrella of monopoly authority – is a long-dead concept of American lore. The states have been subservient to a national Leviathan since the War for Southern Independence. If the Constitution was supposed to balance the powers between state legislatures and Congress, it has been a miserable failure. Like pigs at the trough, the “laboratories of democracy” lined up to feed on an endless stream of Washington money that came with strings implicitly attached.

A vast security state is coming, and it will not be limited to the United States. The sock puppet governments around the globe will follow in tandem. New surveillance technology lowers the barrier of effort needed to soak the productive class of the surplus fruits of its labor. From monitoring backyards to ensure taxes are being paid on swimming pools to spying on farmers who violate agricultural regulations, states across the globe are already using new spy tools to extort more loot from the greater public.

All the while, the political class gives an assurance that the technological innovation will not be abused. Newspaper editors parrot the message and paint any critic as a tinfoil hat loon who thinks Big Brother sleeps under their bed. And then there are the television intellectuals who take great joy in making flippant remarks about conspiracy theorists. Each of these personalities pictures him or herself as sitting a few ladder rungs above the horde of bumbling mass-men.

One has to be either lying or painfully ignorant to believe government will not abuse surveillance drones. State officials have rarely failed to use their capacity to terrify the populace. Just recently, journalist Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian revealed that the National Security Agency sweeps up the internet activity of all U.S. residents absent any warrants. Prior to the leak, those politicians in charge of overseeing the government’s oversight activities claimed the snooping was done in the public good and not as widespread as suspected. The new details of the program contradict the assurance, as the NSA’s spy activity is more intrusive – and prone to abuse – than originally thought.

A sterling record of misconduct is still not enough to convince enlightened thinkers and academics of the state’s propensity to terrorize. There are still a handful of civil liberty organizations calling attention to the dangers of the widespread use of surveillance drones and data gathering. But their beef is focused more on the right to privacy rather than a usurpation of basic property rights.

But is there really a right to privacy? The question is riddled with nuances, and the subject has been the debate of thinkers who truly value a free society. And if there exists no metaphysical claim to solitude, is it truly a good to be pursued? In his Ethics of Liberty, Murray Rothbard argued “there is no such thing as a right to privacy except the right to protect one’s property from invasion.” It may be blunt and slightly abrasive, but it is difficult – even insurmountable – to refute Rothbard’s assertion. To put a right to privacy into action, one has to forcefully shut down cognizant behavior on the part of surrounding individuals. This action must occur in public or “unowned” spaces as private land could be altered to block prying views. In practice, to achieve seclusion in a public setting would interfere with the rights of others. In other words, it would constitute a positive right – that which is in direct contention with the liberty of self-ownership.

Michael Rozeff does not believe a pure property rights approach is enough to highlight the importance of privacy. He is correct, but a perspective on rights is not meant to identify what is conducive for human flourishing. It is a governing doctrine based on humanity’s unique attributes. The ability to own and trade property is necessary for the good life, but they are not alone. There are other needs including love, socialization, introspection, aesthetic stimulation, seeking truth, and friendship. The capacity to exist as a full-fledged human being starts with the ownership of self and extends beyond.

I shudder at the idea of a society where the most intimate moments of life are viewable to anyone whom I choose not to share with. The psychological impact of constant monitoring can take a toll on a man’s sense of self and well-being. Autonomy cannot be practiced in full if there is another set of eyes on you at all times. As Rozeff writes, “we need things to be essentially human without there necessarily being a right to them.” No man can survive without sustenance but that does not give him the right to raid the cupboards of his neighbors. Just the same, the need for privacy does not justify the use of force for acquisition.

We have entered in a new era where our most personal details are up for grabs. Everyday, people share the intricacies of their life with a closed network of friends. But an online fingerprint does not stay static. It is bounced around to various parties who have an interest in selling you a product. Advertisements are directed toward records of interest. All of this online tracking, innocuous and lawful as it may be, just does not sit well.

Like the public square, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy on the internet. If people choose to browse the World Wide Web, that is their business. This view does not legitimize the state’s collecting and monitoring of private data however. It is unlikely – though entirely possible – that internet providers had previously inserted a disclaimer about government data tracking into the contracts for clients. If that were so, companies such as Google and Yahoo would not be petitioning Washington to lift gag orders placed on disclosures for user data. Taking account of the sole truth that the state is unfit to exist morally or constructively, any action taken on the part of its lackeys is driven by aggressive theft, and thus illegitimate.

The prospect of around-the-clock surveillance is a chilling thought and one that should not be taken lightly. Unfortunately the only means to achieve some semblance of privacy requires a luddite approach to technology and a hermit’s approach to community. Otherwise, you avail yourself to the terror of visibility in what should otherwise be, in Thomas Paine’s words, the blessing of society.

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