“Don’t say words you’re gonna regret, Don’t let the fire rush to your head …
I am the eye in the sky, lookin’ at you I can read your mind. I am the maker of rules, dealing with fools”
–Sirius/Eye in the Sky, Alan Parsons Project
Dox: (verb) To obtain one’s sensitive personal information online and then make it public for all to see.
With all of the fuss made in the past year over the (unsurprising) revelations that the NSA is spying on us all, many have (predictably) embraced one of two postures: The first is a protectionist one which resents this intrusion and tries to fight it through legislation promoting privacy, secure encryption for emails and text messages, etc. Of this position, I think the prospect of keeping secrets a secret in a world which is becoming more and more globally integrated is a fool’s gambit, and I don’t think too much of laws because I don’t think you can legislate morality.
The second, more passive of the two postures is that of indifference, apathy and resignation. This latter posture is the one which says, “Well, if you’re not guilty you’ve got nothing to hide.”
I’ve never understood this line of reasoning because if you take it to its logical extreme, it basically says, “Well if you don’t have any contraband hidden in your colon, you shouldn’t be averse to thorough anal probing.” In my view, this line of reasoning is simply a symptom of being too afraid to challenge the status quo (or state power in this case). Conversely, the former position places itself in direct opposition to said status quo/state power, a stance which though admirable in its courage and defiance is ineffective in addressing the underlying structural problems and only leads to polarization. Yet as different as these two positions seem, what is the common causality? I would posit that the common denominator in both cases is fear. In the first case, where you have people fighting back against governmental surveillance, the fear serves as an impetus to irrational action (namely, fighting) and in the latter case, fear leads to passivity and rationalizations. But whence cometh this fear? I think that is the important question to answer if we want to deal with it. Well personally, I’m reminded of a bible story where some villagers are gonna stone an adultress to death, and Jesus says, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
The basic implication is that everyone has done a little dirt, that is, everyone has some secrets that they don’t want others to know about and presumably punish them for, and it is the possibility of these secrets being exposed which makes people fearful. For the purposes of the point I’m trying to make, we’re gonna more or less accept this as axiomatic. So in a weird way, I actually agree when passive types and surveillance apologists make arguments to the effect of “innocent people” not fearing observation, but only with the caveat that there are no “innocent” people. Truly, in this socio-economic paradigm everyone has something to lose through the loss of privacy. Everyone has something they can be embarrassed by, blackmailed with, fired for, or in extreme cases, arrested or killed for. So we value our privacy and even pride ourselves on our ability to keep secrets and be secretive (i.e. “Your secret’s safe with me.”)
“If you know the way broadly, you will see it in all things.” -Musashi
But here’s the inconsistency: I assume that most people reading this, and really anyone clamoring for greater personal privacy, would also desire greater corporate and governmental transparency and accountability. And while that is a justifiable desire borne of prevalent corporate malfeasance, there is a marked hypocrisy in wanting to bury and protect your own secrets while at the same time wanting to dig up and expose those of others. But this hypocrisy isn’t incidental; it is integral to our competitive socio-economic system.
So let’s game it out: say the NSA has the complete record of everyone’s electronic communications, all 7 or so billion of us. What happens then? Would they then go and publish it all, making every digital secret public domain and thus free for everyone to access?
Sadly no. In the same way DeBeers only releases a fraction of their total diamonds in order to keep the price up, the NSA (or whomever) would have to be choosy about what secrets to release and who to expose, because in their own way, secrets have a value which can be measured, like all commodities, in terms of scarcity and abundance. If everyone’s secrets were exposed, we would
literally figuratively be adrift in an ocean of knowledge about who’s fucking whom, who’s cheating on their taxes, who’s got what STI, credit card numbers ad nauseum, who’s selling drugs, who’s receiving what drugs for which psychological ailment, who watches what kind of bizarre/outlandish/illegal pornography etc. The power of our secrets to hurt us would be diminished by the knowledge of how common our greatest vices actually are. We would truly see that we all live in proverbial glass houses and perhaps we would stop casting proverbial stones at others, recognizing them as more similar to us than we would currently admit.
But like I said, whomever controls the secrets controls the access to secrets, and will only expose those who are troublesome and need to be discredited. And compared to the whole of humanity, the number of people outed and exposed will be miniscule, but it will be enough to scare everyone else and keep them in line.
Unless we decide not to be afraid.
You see, when I was a kid I tried to blackmail my sister, Tarah into doing the dishes for me by threatening to tell on her for putting a steel pot in a microwave. I played it up as a big deal, telling her how she could have burnt the house down and people could have died, and I even fabricated a story of how my Mom caught my other sister, Tanya doing the same thing and she got smacked for it (I was a kid and kids are retarded, sadistic assholes). Tarah got so scared that she was in tears and was ready to do the dishes for me. But of course, my mother probably wouldn’t have cared, seeing as it was an accident, and my little sister need not have been afraid. Knowing her mistake didn’t actually give me any power over her; it was only her fear of reprisals that gave me any power over her. I think this is an incredibly apt example of how we are controlled through our fear of consequences. Any reprisals she would have faced were nothing compared to the nightmare scenario she had concocted in her brain, and I think this holds true for most, if not all cases of blackmail.*
What’s that you say? My tale of childhood blackmail was small potatoes compared to real blackmail that could cost people careers, spouses, money and/or freedom. Well, I would argue that fear is in the eye of the beholder, and that the fear a scared child has of a beating is just as palpable and real as the fear an adult feels when facing “grown-up” repercussions. In the long run, if they value freedom, it is better for both the adult and the child to take their proverbial lumps and not live under someone else’s thumb. Or do like Dave Letterman and fuck ’em on national TV.
Realistically though is everyone gonna face their fear of public embarrassment like Dave? Probably not. Did he have a lot to lose? Most certainly. But at the same time I think its safe to say that his indiscretions were relatively benign. Its not like he was fucking little boys or anything. But whatever your particular vice or indiscretion, as soon as you claim it you take the bullet that can hurt you out of the chamber.
So while I wait for everyone to reject fear and voluntarily out themselves, thus nullifying the power of spying, what would I like to see happen? Well, the prevailing mentalities among the “spied upon” seem to be either trying to legislate privacy, or blithely accepting greater surveillance and by extension, isolation. But what if we the public were to be “wikileaked?”
Imagine if you will, one day you woke up to discover that some industrious group of hackers hacked the NSA’s database where they store everything they know about your masturbation habits and everyone else’s, then took this information and uploaded to the ether for anyone to download off Pirate Bay?
Or it could be an NSA insider. Fuck, we already had Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, so at this point there’s a precedent.
It would be like in Fight Club when they blow up all the credit card company buildings, essentially leveling the playing field by starting everyone back at zero. Noone would be able to leverage anything on you cause there would be so much shit that we’d stop caring. Secrets would cease to be like diamonds, valuable as they are for their artificial scarcity, and instead become like air: free and abundant and taken for granted.
I’ll leave you with an observation from Orwell’s classic, 1984. Everyone in that book might as well have been committing thoughtcrime, because even if they weren’t they would eventually have a moment of weakness and frustration and get reported on by their neighbours or directly observed by the Party. They were all chafing under the oppressive weight of the Ingsoc monolith and while they likely all harbored subversive thoughts, they all looked around and saw other people smiling blithely (as a survival mechanism) and thus felt isolated among fellow dissidents. And this is what a party interested in power counts on; people feeling ashamed and thus isolated from fellows who share the same human traits and frustrations they do. We may not be ready yet to come forward with all of our own sins, but we can get the ball rolling by judging, ostracizing and condemning less, and doing our part to create a more open world where people with secrets, vices, and other problems don’t need to shoulder the triple burdens of shame, isolation, and fear of exposure.
DOX THE WORLD!
*On a poetic note, after I had gotten her to agree to do the dishes for me, my mother, who had told me to do them, entered the kitchen and asked why there weren’t done. I couldn’t say, “Oh because I spent the last fifteen minutes trying to blackmail Tarah into doing it.” Nor could I say that Tarah had voluntarily agreed to do it, because then she would become curious and my sister would crack under her questioning exposing the whole sordid affair. So I told her I was about to do them, and thankfully it didn’t occur to my sister to come clean and out me as a blackmailing coward. This just shows that while the blackmailer benefits from the threat of exposing partial truth, they abhor the full disclosure of the whole situation and their dirty role in it. This is why complete truth, and complete disclosure should be sought.