Rationalization v. The Law

Today, various news outlets revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency has been tapping the networks of massive Internet data sites like Yahoo and Google, "vacuuming" up the private, personal data of millions and millions of users.  

This is just one among many of the tactics used by the NSA and other security agencies to collect digital information that have been revealed by former security contractor Edward Snowden. The NSA has even gone so far as to tap the personal cell phone of Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany - a long-time American ally.

The alleged purpose of all of this is to prevent future terrorist attacks on the United States by identifying potential security threats before they can strike. Of course, it would seem unlikely that the Chancellor of Germany could be a potential terrorist operative, but the inclusion of her in the spying scheme makes sense if you consider it from a broader perspective. 

There is a concept in the academic field of sociology called "rationalization." Simply put, it is the societal shift away from tradition and morality as guiding principles to the dominance of cold calculation; goal-oriented behavior where the ends justify the means. The most common example of rationalization is the phenomenon of "fast food," where the end result - a cheap, standardized meal - justifies even the most extreme methods of production. The traditional methods of food production, such as family farms and slow-cooking, give way to the rush of instant caloric gratification.

Rationalization brings a number of benefits, including increased efficiency, a higher standard of living, and easier achievement of important goals. Rationalization is not without a dark side, though, which sociologists have described as "the irrationality of rationality."

National security has embraced a similar process of rationalization. At least since the Cold War, the American government has been obsessed with security. The ultimate goal of that security was the identification and elimination of foreign threats. Spying was the means to that end. However, for a long time, this goal was at least somewhat stymied by technological limits. It wasn't physically possible to capture and read every piece of mail sent from one post office to another, or to tap every single phone call, no matter how much some bureaucrats may have wanted to. But now, deep into the Digital Age, the exchange of information and data is now easier than ever to intercept and eavesdrop upon.

As the revelations about the NSA show us, the rationalization of the security industry accelerated after the September 11 attacks and has thrived regardless of who sits in the White House. It is unaffected by partisan politics. Further, at some point the ultimate goal - the identification and elimination of foreign threats - shifted. Now, the driving purpose of the security industry is the collection of all information exchanged by all people. The means became the end.

There is, of course, a dark side. Anyone who uses any electronic means of communication must now accept the fact that "privacy" is a mirage. The traditional, non-rationalized protection of personal information from the prying eyes of government agents is still enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and in the binding words of the U.S. Supreme Court, yet these relics of the past seem to have collapsed under the treads of rationalization's blitzkrieg. Instead, our leaders and the bureaucratic machine they control have determined that nothing can or should stand in the way of "intelligence." The collection of information - once the means to the end of national security - is now all that matters.

Yet the law persists. The protections of our privacy built into American society by the Founders and enforced by the courts (at least until recently) still remain, waiting to be harnessed by those who recognize that rationalization must have limits. Some things, like privacy, are important. As Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, "the right to be let alone" is "the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men." 

At what point do we reclaim the reins of our society? Will we remember that the foundational tools of civilization - our Constitution and our laws - are still available to us to preserve critical values such as personal privacy? I have hope that Edward Snowden's revelations will help refresh our memories.