I was in Amsterdam when the Snowden story broke. CNN was non-stop asking politicians and pundits, “Is Edward Snowden a traitor?” Those who said he betrayed America also said something else: Mass surveillance is only an issue if you’re a criminal. If you’ve got nothing to hide then you’ve got nothing to fear.
The Snowden story hit me upon my return from – of all places on earth – the Secret Annex of the Anne Frank House. The Secret Annex is where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis for two years. It was during this period of hiding in terror that Anne wrote her world-famous diary. In it she confided, “I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met.”
The “Anne Frank House” — then and now
I say I was lucky because the cosmic unlikeliness of my Secret Annex visit coinciding with Snowden’s mass surveillance revelations led to some revelations of my own. My understanding of law, criminality, and mass surveillance coalesced into a horrifying picture.
It turns out we’re all criminals in a mass surveillance world. The only question is whether we’ll get caught. Let me explain.
What Makes a Criminal?
Merriam-Webster defines crime as “activity that is against the law.” Law is defined as a “set of rules made by the government.” Thus a criminal is someone who breaks government rules.
The law as a whole is an ever-expanding collection of rules that politicians (“lawmakers”) decree and occasionally repeal. Laws are as moral as the politicians who make them.
Simply put, laws are the rules politicians make up, and criminals are people who break them.
It floored me to realize: Anne Frank was, in fact, a criminal. She was a fugitive of the law.
We can express outrage at the designation since Anne did nothing wrong. And we can debate which rules of any particular regime are tolerable or repugnant. But our opinions don’t change the fact that “criminal” is a government-defined standard imposed on us, the governed.
A law-abiding citizen was obligated to turn Anne into the police. To assist her was a crime. In America the Fugitive Slave Law obligated law-abiding citizens to turn in runaway slaves, and assisting them was punishable by 6 months in jail and a $28,000 fine (in today’s dollars).
In early colonial America masturbation, blasphemy, and homosexuality werecrimes punishable by death. Virtually any act you can think of has been criminalized by one regime or another. Being a law-abiding citizen only means you comply with whatever rules politicians have imposed on you.
Throughout history we observe only a slight overlap between the endless supply of laws governments impose on people and the handful of acts we all agree are morally wrong: theft, assault, rape, murder.
The American Crime Complex
To understand why we’re criminals requires a basic overview of how law is created and enforced.
Every law hatches a new crime with an associated punishment. A law is both an order and a threat, for if a law carries no threat of punishment, it’s not a law. It’s a suggestion. Politicians mince words by using different labels for their rules – laws, regulations, statutes, bills, acts, ordinances, et cetera – but they all fundamentally mean the same thing: Obey or be punished.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that it’s legal for prosecutors to threaten you with catastrophic punishment – even life imprisonment – for a minor crime if you don’t forfeit your right to a jury trial. (In the landmark caseprosecutors secured a life sentence for forging an $88 check because the defendant refused a plea bargain.)
Because prosecutors wield such enormous power, almost everyone takes a plea bargain. Getting your day in court is a myth perpetuated in TV shows and movies. Innocent people often agree to plead guilty and suffer the punishment rather than risk having their lives destroyed. The system isrigged against you, and your chance of conviction at trial is around 90%.
This government prosecutor explains to new prosecutors that the goal of jury selection is to pick people who “are as unfair and more likely to convict than anybody else in that room.”
Back to our heroic criminal, Anne. The Frank family moved from Germany to Amsterdam in 1933. Otto started a successful spice and pectin business. In 1942 the family went into hiding from the Nazis in the rear section of Otto’s building. Anne called it the Secret Annex. It’s a cramped, makeshift living quarters whose hidden entry is masked by a swinging bookcase.
The feeling was overwhelming as I slunk through the space: I am disgusted by my species. This little girl and her family spent two years living with a noose around their necks knowing the floor could drop out at any time.
Then one day it did. An informant tipped off the police. They were arrested and sent to death camps, which were described as “labor camps” to its victims. “Work will set you free” it said above the gate at Auschwitz. The Franks were healthy enough to be put to work rather than gassed straight away.
Are you female? Imagine yourself as a 15-year old being stripped naked by guards, having your head shaved, getting tattooed with a serial number, and then being forced into non-stop hard labor. Take a moment and imagine having a daughter who suffered this fate.
We’re members of a species that does this. Not as an act of spontaneous insanity, but deliberately and methodically. Let us remember: It was legal.
Only Anne’s father Otto survived. His wife and two daughters perished despite the substantial measures he had taken to avoid this horrific fate. They left Germany early on, and he even put his business in a gentile’s name to stay out of government filings. As things got worse, he applied for visas to bring his family to America or Cuba, but they were rejected. How did his family end up trapped in Amsterdam? Laws.
A heroic woman named Miep Gies rescued Anne’s diary before the police confiscated everything in the Annex. Miep returned the diary to Otto after the war ended. She was one of six souls who risked their lives as outlaws in order to keep them in hiding. Miep not only rescued Anne’s diary. She never read it out of respect for Anne’s privacy. When Otto published it, Miep said if she’d read it she would have felt obligated to destroy it since it was filled with damning information, including her name and all the others who helped the family survive, including an (illegal) underground supply network.
The dramatic irony of Miep not reading Anne’s diary made me cry. Here is an act of human decency which epitomizes everything government is not. Miep not only risked everything trying to keep these people alive. She not only saved Anne’s diary, one of the world’s most powerful pieces of literature. She not only didn’t read it despite its owner getting shipped off to a death camp. After the Franks were arrested, Miep went to the police station and offered the arresting officer a bribe for their release. As fearless as that was, it didn’t work. She escaped punishment because the officer had a soft spot for her being from his home town, Vienna.
If it’s possible to love a dead woman you’ve never laid eyes on, I do. Miep, thank you for showing people that human decency springs from following our conscience, not the law. Millions blindly follow orders. The bravest heroes in this world are law-breakers.
A Single Piece of Data
Walking from Anne’s Secret Annex into CNN’s nothing-to-hide mass surveillance chorus provided a rare moment of clarity in my life. Her father’s disclosure a decade earlier of a single piece of data, their religion, destroyed his family. The disclosure was a legalrequirement to be issued a passport.
To apologists of mass surveillance, what did Anne Frank have to hide? I ask because the person credited with popularizing the nothing-to-hide argument is none other than Joseph Goebbles, Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda for the Third Reich. (Back then the word propaganda didn’t have a negative connotation. It meant public relations.)
After examining the Frank family passports in the Secret Annex, it later struck me how much more information is extracted by the US census and annual American Community Survey. Where were you born? Are you “Black, African Am., or Negro?” Are you Pakistani? Latino? Are you unemployed? What is your profession? How much money do you make? Do you own or rent? How much do you spend on utilities? Who lives with you? Do you have children? How well do you speak English? Do you speak another language at home? What is your marriage status? Have you been divorced? Where did you go to school? Have you been employed by the U.S. military? Which wars did you fight in? And on it goes… All information explained away as needed to hand out “government benefits.”
Minister Goebbels would have wrung his hands with delight at having this depth of data on his regime’s citizens. But this data is absolutely trivial compared to what the U.S. government actually knows about you. Thanks toWilliam Binney and Edward Snowden, we know that the U.S. regime has for many years been secretly constructing the means to monitor and record every aspect of our lives.
Snowden put it in terms everyone can understand: “Even if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you are being watched and recorded.” Thankfully we don’t have to take Snowden’s word for it. The government’s agenda was laid bare in this secret NSA slide from 2011: Sniff It All – Know It All – Collect It All – Process It All – Exploit It All.
Share It All is in reference to swapping surveillance data with New Zealand, Canada, Britain, and Australia – the so-called Five Eyes who are de facto military protectorates of the United States.