In reading the title, you may be expecting me to suggest that you write a letter to your government representative to protest the NSA’s surveillance. Instead, I want to suggest something radical: write a letter and not use email. If you want to avoid technological surveillance, do not use technology. Use the post office to ensure your privacy. After all, who has time to open, read, and still deliver a million letters a day?What the outcry over the surveillance state shows is that most people want a technological solution to a technological problem when they hear about the NSA surveillance state. They want more encryption or they want the NSA to stop. Yet, neither of those will work. The first is simply technological. As such, it does not change the issue. The second is impossible because it is tied to the state’s self-preservation. No state willingly abandons its defensive capabilities and survives for long. Instead a third way is needed.
The third way to privacy by changing our political approach to technology.
The third way is to avoid technology and consider why we rely on technology and how that makes us vulnerable to technology. The core issue behind the Snowden revelations about PRISM is not the surveillance state. In many ways, it has always existed since man had neighbours. Instead, the issue is our reliance on technology and our mistaken belief that it is neutral or even benign. What we fail to understand, we look at technology in that way is that technology only reflects human nature. In other words, technology does not replace or improve human nature. Therein, we see why the challenge of the surveillance state is not technological but political. We need to understand why we are using the system, what we are using it for, and why we are so worried about it.
Technology only erodes the public and private space we no longer sustain
At the moment, we seem comfortable with technology eroding our public space. With Google Glass soon to be available and Google Maps already covering most of the world we enjoy the benefits it appears to bring. Yet, the surveillance state seems to worry us because we see technology’s darker potential. However, the issue is not simply technology. Instead, the issue is the human nature, the human intent, behind its use and the ends to which it is direct. The people who set up and run the NSA systems are not intent on becoming tyrants. After all, they have to live under the system as well. They have set up the system because the political system wants what technology can deliver. As a by-product our privacy appears to be under threat.
We want to be private because we no longer know each other or ourselves?
As Lawrence Lessig argued in Architecture of Privacy privacy has been changed by the expanded capacity to monitor and search our lives. Technology in the hands of the modern state shrinks the public space and the private space. The deeper problem is not the technology but that the technology allows us to see the human person as an object. We become simply another object that the state must process and not a man or women with intrinsic worth. In that way, technology leads us or habituates us to think of each other as objects. Where the physical public space may have existed for us in the past and the promise of cyberspace was an unlimited electronic public space, we see an uncertain future because technology’s presence in the physical world and the limits of our human nature in the electronic world. What we need to do is to reconsider our relationship to technology and more importantly our relationship with each other.
Write a letter to restore your privacy
As I said at the beginning, you can thwart the NSA surveillance state by writing a letter. Who, though, writes letters? We want the technological convenience of an email even though we know we have lost privacy because we have to rely on a company to manage the electronic exchange. Instead of waking up to a regime out of control, the near hysterical concern with tyranny that echoes back to at least 1789 in the United States, we have woken up to our technological nakedness. Our personal data is not our own. All our private thoughts transmitted across the web are only possible because they are transmitted by means we cannot control. The only way we can begin to reassert our privacy is to avoid the technology that reduces our privacy. Yet, who will stop using email? Who will stop using twitter? Who will stop using Facebook?
Log off, write a letter, and hold a meeting, rediscover politics
In that sense, we have answered our own question concerning human nature. We want a technological solution to a political problem. We want to be safe, we want privacy, but neither of these are technological problems. They are political problems that can only be addressed, never solved, by political means. To the extent that we rely on technology, we use email rather than letters, we show that our political horizons have become limited rather than expanded by technology. Perhaps it is time we unplug and log off and begin to reawaken our political lives by writing letters, talking to our neighbours and holding public meetings. Who knows we may just find our privacy again.
 For a fuller discussion of this point, consider https://lawrenceserewicz.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/stephen-jobs-martin-heidegger-apple-and-the-new-culture-of-technology/
 We may also need to consider how the university is being stunted by technological view of politics and the world. https://lawrenceserewicz.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/what-is-the-university-in-an-age-of-social-media/
- Krugman: NSA Surveillance State ‘On The Authoritarian Side’ (huffingtonpost.com)
- Is a democratic surveillance state possible? (washingtonpost.com)
- Surveillance State: NSA’s PRISM Spying on Virtually All Americans – NSA Soaks Up Billions of Files Daily (thedestructionist.wordpress.com)
- Surveillance State: NSA’s PRISM Spying on Virtually All Americans (news.antiwar.com)
- State surveillance and freedom of expression as seen by UN Rapporteur Frank La Rue (thoolen.wordpress.com)
- NSA Spying & Privacy: Transparency in the New Economy (fora.tv)
Well I agree with much of the ideas your post mentions, writing a letter in the US is tracked – a lot. The front and back of EVERY piece First Class Mail is photographed and the data scanned and indexed. You are required to have a full return address on the front of the letter The Govt scans the back but are moving toward rejecting letters sent that way. While the letter won’t usually be read, its the same as the phone calls. They track who calls who, from where to where and then extrapolate the physical proximity of other phones that intersect with the tracked line. . Even an in person conversation is only safe if there are no phones around as declassified data shows that phones have been hijacked to turn on mics, cameras and even take over BlueTooth devices nearby. So have your meeting when no one has any electronics. I would wager setting that up will attract a lot of in-person attention.
Thanks for reading the article and taking time to reply. I was always interested in the post office efficiency drives. The whole Zip+4 identifies the exact house. Of course the post office was first designed to be an alternative government framework in case the whole federal government was destroyed in an attack. You can rebuild the country from its postal codes.
In terms of managing the post and monitoring it, I am not certain they are the same thing. I have not heard the Post office recording that information and for what period of time. If you have links on that information, I would be interested. I had not heard it being used for such investigations, but that is possible. (I was aware that banks scanned all their checks (for those that still have checks) and store them. Yet, the possibility of re-mailing services and PO boxes starts to be possible. Moreover, sending post does not mean that you need a name only a zip+4 technically should be enough to send the letter. In the past, the really secret people only had a postal connection to the world, no direct phone nor direct email. However, all of this while interesting, misses the main point of my post.
The issue I wanted to explore was that our concerns are based on technology and the belief that there is a technological solution to what is a political question. How are we to live together and why do we need a surveillance state are closer to first order questions than what technology do we have that allows us to resist or that we use in the digital era. I would suggest that we move further away from understanding what makes us human, and with intrinsic worth that the state must not violate, the more we use technology and see the world as technological.
I appreciate your thoughtful and stimulating response. I hope you can send me links to any information that the Post Office is storing the information it scans.