Security, privacy and zombies
— Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania Assembly Reply to the Governor, 1755
The Walking Dead is a popular TV show about zombies. Sort of. Certainly, unthinking, ravenous, relentless zombies are a constant presence and the threat they represent frames everything that the survivors now are trying to do, but the show actually spends more time dealing with the survivors, and this means that The Walking Dead is really about us.
Sometimes fiction is just about telling a good story. Like much other art, however, often the story is intended to tell us something about ourselves. Science fiction, in particular, has the great advantage of allowing the storyteller to make up a completely different society that illuminates something about our society, but allows sufficient distance that we can see the issue from a clearer perspective. So what, if anything, is the show’s message?
For those unfamiliar with the show, the general plot runs something like this:
• A Very Bad Thing (the release of a virus that reanimates dead people, i.e., a Zombie Apocalypse) happens. This new threat is everywhere and is very dangerous.
• The survivors are, very reasonably, Very Afraid. The zombies do not rest; they are motivated only to kill the survivors.
• Society is irrevocably changed; the survivors now must decide what their new society will look like. Issues like the nature of due process for those accused of crimes, and even which laws are still crimes, are pertinent.
In this description, if we replace the zombie apocalypse with a serious terrorist attack, it will look familiar to those of us who can call ourselves post 9/11 survivors.
Although the threat of the zombies permeates the whole show, we find that most of the dramatic tension is between and within groups of survivors as they try to arrive at a reasonable approach to their society. So who are the villains of the piece and why?
It turns out that people do not make good decisions when flavoured by anger or fear. In the story, a character called The Governor collects a community of Very Afraid survivors, promising safety and security in exchange for the authority to do as he pleases. Because he is a villain, he abuses this authority, in particular taking lethal measures against those who wish to dispute his power. In the U.S., Congress, representing a Very Afraid and Very Angry population, within days of the September 11 attacks, authorized the president to use, anywhere in the world, whatever military force he deemed necessary to prevent further attacks – with no end date, and with scant debate. The resolution is so vaguely worded that it has been compared to a Christmas tree – “All sorts of things have been hung off those 60 words.”
Similarly, intelligence agencies were authorized to use any tangible thing to provide the information the nation needs to defend itself – what comedian Jon Stewart refers to as “anything but wishes and fairies.” This is an amount of authority that would not likely have been considered on September 10, 2001, yet after more than12 years, these authorities remain.
The problem with giving large amounts of power to others is that usually the people given this authority will come to believe that it is necessary to keep it. Keeping power means recreating the emotional state extant when the decision was made in the first place. Fortunately for our villains in the story, the zombies are a visible reminder of the reason the survivors should be afraid. In real life, maintaining the fear is less easy. Terrorists are generally elsewhere, western nations have fought countless military engagements and killed many thousands of terrorists and their supporters, including Osama bin Laden and much of Al-Qaeda’s leadership. There have been no successful attacks against western nations for many years.
Nonetheless, political leaders are cautious when considering relaxing security measures or restoring authority levels to pre-9/11 levels. After all, nobody wants to be held responsible for the next successful attack, nor does there appear to be much groundswell for change, at least until recently. Of course, knowing that the authority has been given and knowing what it actually means is not the same thing, and people generally have been unaware of the extent to which intelligence agencies have been scooping up available information about them.
This brings us to Edward Snowden, who has been releasing highly classified documents he collected while working as a contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency. The type of activities described in these documents seems to present a level of electronic surveillance that makes many uncomfortable, even angry. Certainly, most of the voting public in the U.S. and its Five Eyes allies would have been unaware that their information was being swept up in a net presumably designed to catch terrorists. Moreover, authorities in both the U.S. and Canada maintain that all of these activities are, in fact, legal.
So what are we to make of this situation? First, it seems evident that, like the survivors in The Walking Dead, we are still working our way through the balance between our personal liberty and our ability to protect our society. Do we have the balance right? Was it right before? Only time will tell, but it seems certain that we need to have a discussion on the issue absent an atmosphere of fear and anger. Our deliberations need to be logical and balanced, and they need to be well-informed. There are arguments that need to be heard and considered, and electors must give their political leaders their marching orders.
In this sense, we owe Snowden a vote of thanks, despite his otherwise treasonous actions. He has managed to shed light on some of the activities of the NSA, Communication Security Establishment and other similar agencies, a prerequisite for a reasoned discussion of the issue.
After all, only the survivors have the chance to have a debate, and we want to be the survivors in this story – not the zombies.
Colonel (Ret’d) Bruce Jackson served in a number of positions dealing with information operations. He consults in the areas of strategic planning and IT security.