20/01/2014

Francois Hollande's Escapade, the NSA and the Private/Public Divide

The recent revealing photos of Francois Hollande's evening escapade together with the sudden hospitalization of the erstwhile (?) partner/First Lady Val←rie Trierweiler raise most interesting questions. Specifically, together with the blowback from the Snowden/NSA revelations we are obviously entering a new era of defining the private/public domains. While we all appreciate how technology has brought the world closer together, the invasion of privacy issue can no longer be ignored. We certainly like to communicate, but we are getting worried that most if not all of our private communications have entered the public domain.  

Hollande's January 14 press conference was riveting. 


By and large, the French press accepted that what had happened and what was transpiring was a private affair. The personal life of the President of France was respected, although pressure will mount on him to declare with whom he will be traveling to the U.S. to see President Obama in February - a legitimate protocol question to a sitting president. One can only imagine what would have taken place if Barack Obama was caught going out in a similar situation. The brouhaha over the infamous "selfie" picture with the Danish Prime Minister at Nelson Mandela's funeral was bad enough. Americans, puritanical as they are, have had more than enough of presidential low jinks since the Clinton/Lewinsky affair. We want our leaders perfectly monogamous no matter how much we watch "Sex and the City".

The French, on the other hand, have no tradition of monogamous leaders. Au contraire. The exposure of Francois Mitterrand's mistress and illegitimate daughter were a veritable breakthrough in reporting the private lives of French public officials. The DSK scandals erupted only because the police were involved in a rape accusation. Otherwise, Strauss-Kahn's private life was just that, his private life. 

How do the Snowden/NSA revelations play into this? It is one thing to realize that public figures' private lives have become more transparent, it is another to accept that we as private citizens are being listened to as well. In fact, the "spying" scandal has shown that technology can now reach into all forms of communication, from mail to telephone to fax to e-mails, and on and on. And that spying now includes such innocents as you and me, Mr. and Mrs. Everybody. I recently asked a friend who is closely involved in the Blue Brain project whether in the future computers will be able to understand what we are thinking before we utter or type a word. The fact that he didn't laugh and pondered for a moment was truly frightening. 

So, while the French become more transparent about their officials and Americans are worried that 1984's Brave New World of the police state is arriving - for those who think it hasn't already arrived - must we accept that this is inevitable? For civil libertarians, defending the private sphere is the real fight of the 21st century. The very bases of Liberalism - individual freedom and liberty - are at stake. But, as technology advances, can human checks and balances be put in place which can guarantee safeguards to stop the diminishing private/public space? Just as humanitarian space is being squeezed by the political, private space is being squeezed by sophisticated intrusive devices in the name of security. 

Filming radar machines have successfully cut down on the number of accidents on the highways. We assume that cameras will reduce crimes in certain neighborhoods. But, there is a price to be paid for all this surveillance. And that price may be too high and too difficult to turn back.   

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