National Security Letters As Tyranny Per Se
Posted on January 18, 2017
Under the Patriot Act, National Security Letters allow the FBI to investigate your second party data without a warrant, by merely issuing an NSL, and then they can impose a gag order so that you will never find out you were being spied on. The gag orders also prevent the data company from lobbying against this uncontrolled spying. Hence we have closed circle: the initial tyrannical act is compounded by a tyrannical action that prevents the normal procedures of democracy from righting the scales of justice.
In terms of communication theory, this setup parallels Gregory Bateson’s original description of the double bind. Most people confuse that term with a single bind, which means a bad situation in family dynamics where you are issued contradictory commandments (e.g. stick up for yourself but do what you are told) so you get punished no matter which route you take. However a double bind is worse: you are issued an additional commandment not to talk about it. Hence you are deprived of the standard mechanism for dealing with bad situations, which consists in reaching a cognitive understanding of what is going on by talking it over with a supportive ally. The net result tends to drive people crazy.
Similar, the NSLs put data custodians in a single bind: their fiduciary obligations to their customer contradict the requirements imposed by the FBI. But then the FBI gag order adds a double bind by cutting off preventive action in the form of whistleblowing.
That is a good way to drive a society crazy.