Government Surveillance: When Realism Clashes with Idealism


In a democratic society, the public asks (and expects) its government to serve the people; we demand high-quality infrastructure, health care, education, transportation, security, etc. Like any business, improvements can only be made by collecting and analyzing data. In an America governed by capitalist dogma, how can we be dumbfounded to learn that the government will go to any legal or illegal end to collect the necessary data to manipulate the system? Governments do illegal things all the time, both with and without the public’s knowledge and/or consent. We want to be served better, we demand the government do it, and the digital data necessary for them to meet our demands is, in our legal system based on democratic and capitalist ideals, often not illegal. This is not unlike the trash we leave at the street: still ours and still on our property, yet it’s a free-for-all for anyone who wants to access and use it against us.

Having an international relations background, these articles related very much to neo-classical realism for me, which suggests that states exist in a paranoia-driven anarchical system, and in order to survive they will do absolutely whatever is necessary, to enemies and allies alike. This is where I see West’s point about international surveillance coming in, namely with China (#4 & #8). If the U.S. has the capability of doing it, it will do it legal or illegal, plain and simple. However, there is no distinction between enemy or ally (#5, #10, #11, #12, & #14), because such titles are subjective and non-binding. Social and political factions in Russia and China are critical of the U.S., but so are comparable factions in Great Britain, France, and Germany. If we watch our own citizens, what makes us think we won’t do it to others?

Looking domestically, neo-classical realism in IR also believes that countries are concerned with protecting national ideologies and values, not people. In this light, citizens are nothing more than hollow shells of flesh, resources to be used and abused by the system to consolidate power domestically and internationally. A great piece by Giorgio Agamben argues that governments make law, and as the highest powers in the system, they suspend law as they see fit. So while Richards is very correct in saying secret and total surveillance is illegitimate, illegal, and harmful, in a realist light, it honestly doesn’t matter. The U.S. has violated domestic and international law for centuries and will continue to do so. Shining a light on its surveillance practices will only result in them moving on to other more subvert methods. Whether they collect data “legally” through government contracts and agreements (#1, #6) or illegally (#2, #3, #15, & #17), they will do whatever it takes to get the intelligence they believe they need to quell “threats” like the Disrupt J20 organized protests.

Government behavior has been this way long before digital technology, and I doubt it will change anytime soon. Every day we see (or fail to see) our society living out what John Mearsheimer called the “tragedy of great power politics.”


Author: Phillip Arceneaux

I am a Ph.D. student in the College of Journalism and Communication at the University of Florida.

2 thoughts on “Government Surveillance: When Realism Clashes with Idealism”

  1. Phil, I like your ties to the IR theory in your discussion. I also really like the analogy of our data trail as our trash on the streets, which we don’t give a second thought about it, but if someone rooted through it, there’s no telling what conclusions they might come to or what they might find out about us and potentially use against us. We believe our online activities to be harmless and “normal,” but as Richards discussed, the government could connect dots in ways we can’t even imagine to build a case. I remember a story that was in the news a few years back, where a man had the SWAT team show up at his house, terrorizing his family, because of a string of odd Google searches coming from his computer. The Google searches, if I remember correctly, were something between the Boston Marathon bomber’s methods and motivations, and then the man’s son’s chemistry research project, adding up to something that set of the radar. Seemingly innocuous activity can be easily misconstrued and lead to horrible consequences that the government then doesn’t even feel the need to apologize for after.


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