Skip to content Skip to footer

The Premise of Digital Surveillance Precludes Scholarship

(Photo: nist6ss / Flickr)

Since 9/11, sweeping and indiscriminate digital surveillance of all computer and telecommunications users has been conducted, and more recently, systems have been developed to store every byte of that information forever. This means that if actors within some government agency decide to target you, they can immediately access every telecommunication: email, phone call, etcetera, that you have made or sent for years, as well as every web site you have visited.

While this practice clearly violates the Fourth Amendment (and similar laws in other countries), it has also been revealed by high-level National Security Agency insiders to be completely unnecessary to any real criminal investigative procedure.[1]

However, there is an even deeper and more fundamental error in the premise behind cataloguing and storing which webpages you have visited for use against you in the future. It is the misconception that you are in agreement with all materials you watch and read.

Merriam-Webster defines research as: “1. careful or diligent search 2. studious inquiry or examination; especially : investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts, revision of accepted theories or laws in the light of new facts, or practical application of such new or revised theories or laws 3. the collecting of information about a particular subject.”

A basic component of research, as any scholar will tell you, is in doing a comprehensive survey of the all historic models and theories, as well as keeping up with current discoveries, debates and opinions. In the information age, this means accessing thousands of webpages, including text, image and video. Many of those pages undoubtedly will contain outdated models, rousing debates and opinions divergent from your own. The work of a scholar is to sift through these volumes of information and try to compare various positions in order to come to a personal understanding of the present situation. For a scholar in the humanities, social sciences, philosophy or religion, this can mean studying any type of human or natural activity. For a scholar in any of the hard sciences, the same can be said, as research blurring this distinction is now commonplace.

For a journalist, this goes without saying.

Many Americans will find this obvious. After all, scholarship is complex. But what is scholarship? Who can be called a scholar? In the past, access to university libraries was carefully guarded, and women and people of color were routinely barred from entering. As Virginia Woolf famously writes in A Room of One’s Own:

… here I was actually at the door which leads into the library itself. I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.[2]

A library represents knowledge. As the saying goes, knowledge is power. Keeping women from entering was a way of denying them power. The same can be said about denying people of color. Since the civil rights movement, physical access to libraries and universities has been greatly improved. Higher education is largely available to all, providing, of course, the resources are available or large debt is taken on. For those without the money or who prefer to study the world on their own, there is the Internet. This vast and intricate resource allows the scholar-researcher, whether in or out of college, publishing or not, to seek a wide and diverse array of content and knowledge.

However, a new “For Whites Only” or “For Men Only” sign has been erected in the last ten years, in the form of digital surveillance. This new prohibition of knowledge, however, is not prejudiced against women or people of color specifically, but against anyone outside of the surveillance apparatus and the halls of power.

How does it work? It operates on the principle of prior restraint. Prior restraint is a prohibition, usually governmental, “imposed on expression before the expression actually takes place.” It is essentially like declaring: No one may speak or write about daffodils from now on. Period. The end. This is fundamentally unconstitutional. The First Amendment guarantees that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. This means you can say and write whatever you like, with only a few clearly enumerated (if frequently legally tested) limitations, such as those prohibiting libel or slander.

But the new prohibition of knowledge is even more insidious than traditional prior restraint. By collecting everyone’s information and operating from the false premise that a web site visitor necessarily agrees with or would act in any way upon the content therein, the surveillance state has instituted thoughtcrime. This term from George Orwell’s 1984 represents the codification of the false premise that a mental thought is the same as a physical action.

Anyone who has ever had to lose weight has experienced a craving for a particular food. Thinking about the food and actually eating it are two different things – one will put on pounds and the other won’t. Likewise thinking, talking, writing or learning about a disgusting food doesn’t mean you want to eat it. There are all sorts of TV shows in which people eat strange and disgusting foods. We are interested in these practices, but this does not mean we want to engage in them. Similarly, by the faulty reasoning of thoughtcrime, you would be guilty of (or at least capable of) every murder you have watched at the movies or on television, including the news, and every violent act in every book you’ve ever read. The ludicrousness of operating according to thoughtcrime is extremely obvious, and yet when it comes to web searches, people have somehow forgotten it.

Critical thinking is a term that has been tossed about in education for years. In 2000, the US Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics released a sourcebook entitled, The NPEC Sourcebook on Assessment, Volume 1: Definitions and Assessment Methods for Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Writing. This report stresses the importance of critical thinking and lists seven major categories across which critical thinking is defined. These are: interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, presenting arguments, reflection and dispositions.[3] These categories were adopted from studies by Jones et al. (1995, 1997). “Dispositions” refers to the individual’s own disposition to think critically. Jones et al. (1995) write, “critical thinking is generally thought to consist of two main general components, a disposition to think critically and a cognitive component”(p.24)[4]. What this means is that to truly be a critical thinker, you must have a critical disposition. You must be willing to question what you see and hear, and you must be eager to seek out conflicting and controversial materials in order to process them cognitively yourself. This is precisely what the new prohibition of knowledge seeks to stop you from doing.

By claiming falsely that reviewing materials, for example, about creationism, makes one necessarily a creationist, or reviewing materials about jihad makes one a jihadist, or that reviewing materials about anarchism makes one necessarily an anarchist, and, further, that reviewing anything or even claiming these titles is the same as actually committing any crime, the surveillance state is effectively abolishing your right to be a critical thinker.

The Internet has in many ways democratized information and enabled even those outside of higher education to be citizen-scholars and researchers. The foundation of scholarship is access to information and critical thinking. Critical thinking requires both a disposition to question and the cognitive ability to process, compare, and reflect upon diverse and often conflicting types of content. Thoughtcrime, operationalized by digital surveillance, exercises prior restraint on the very foundation of scholarship – wide and uncensored inquiry.


Enemies of the State: What Happens When Telling the Truth about Secret US Government Power Becomes a Crime, Blowing the Whistle on Spying, Lying & Illegalities in the Digital Era
. Panel presented at 29C3 (29th Chaos Communication Congress), 27 December 2012. Speakers are Jesselyn Radack, Thomas Drake, and William Binney.

Woolf, V. (1989). A Room of One’s Own: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp.7-8

US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. The NPEC Sourcebook on Assessment, Volume 1: Definitions and Assessment Methods for Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Writing, NCES 2000—172, page 11. prepared by T. Dary Erwin for the Council of the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative Student Outcomes Pilot Working Group: Cognitive and Intellectual Development. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 2000.

4. Jones, E. A., & et al. (1995). National Assessment of College Student Learning: Identifying College Graduates’ Essential Skills in Writing, Speech and Listening, and Critical Thinking. Final Project Report: US Government Printing Office, Superintendent of Documents, Mail Stop: SSOP, Washington, DC 20402-9328. p.24.

Urgent message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $24,000 in the next 24 hours. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.