None of the revelations so far surrounding PRISM strike me as all that newsworthy. Our country’s leaders have had a long love affair with spying.
The real question is why the sudden outrage and worry about the government abusing this power? Even better, where was the outrage from the right when Bush was doing it illegally?
It is understood that NSA spying didn’t originate with Obama, right?
And by the way, Obama was not the president who duped us into believing we needed to amp up the federal government’s powers with something so deceptively labeled and expertly marketed to us as The Patriot Act.
Besides, isn’t it those of us on the left who ought to be the most outraged with Obama over his willingness to walk a trail blazed mostly, but not exclusively, by his immediate predecessor? Instead, it seems mostly to be the right’s latest excuse to label something as an “Obamanation.” (Cute, huh?)
Well, here’s my take on this outrage du jour.
To anyone who thought they weren’t being monitored until now – until Obama! – it’s only because, and with all due respect, you either,
a) know better and are just being hyper-partisan while choosing to ignore Bush’s record in this matter,
b) don’t have a complete understanding about Big Data, the technology of networks and computers, and how they’re used by organizations, both private and public or,
c) you’ve convinced yourself that you’re somehow special or immune from the realities of living a digital life and all that entails in terms of bits, bytes, packets, and microprocessors.
It’s not called Big Data for no reason.
If you think the government looking at metadata of daily cell phone calls is disturbing, you ain’t seen nothing until you look at what corporations know about you.
No, I don’t like any of it, either. I do understand, however, that corporations and government both already know a lot about us, and technology is making that easier all the time. That’s reality, and that genie is never going back into the bottle. Data is the new coin of the realm, and the people who stand to benefit from it are far, far, FAR more likely to be gainfully employed in the private sector than they are to be government officials.
This isn’t an indictment of corporations. I’ve spent my entire career in technology. It’s simply a matter of fact that corporations are the ones who are creating and who are much more motivated to develop more and better ways of knowing everything about you. Anyone who doubts this should Google or search YouTube with phrases like, “how digital ads work”, “behavioral advertising”, “Big Data”, and “deep packet inspection.”
I’m also not minimizing the threat and concerns about a government knowing too much about its citizens. The issue here is where the balance is between privacy and security.
In the private sector and, like it or not, we agree to give up our privacy every time we choose to accept the user agreements. Those are the endless documents of fine print you never read but agree to by checking off a box when you sign up for a service. It comes with living a part of our lives online.
Why aren’t we just as incensed by the fact that profit-driven corporations collect tremendous amounts of data about us? Am I just not hearing about that outrage? At least when it comes to the government we have some say in who gets elected, right? That’s not true in the private sector. Even with publicly traded companies the individual voices of average shareholders mean nothing compared to institutional investors.
Privacy is mostly a fantasy in the 21st century. You might even call it a quaint notion. It has very nearly no basis in reality in a modern world. Ted Kaczynski didn’t leave digital bread crumbs. He might have been the last person not to do so. I suspect that that’s not a lifestyle most of us would find appealing.
On the other hand, lots of people now seem to be in love with cameras in public spaces, a la Boston, and what it might mean for safety and security. Is that what we want, to be captured more and more in our public lives, both in the real world and online, all in the name of safety and security?
So why all this outrage now? Why now over the renewal – not the creation, the renewal – of the NSA’s spying authorization?
Could it be for political gain?
What can be done about it?
Well, for starters and unlike with the private sector, we have some say in the matter when it comes to our government.
The question about what the government can and can’t do when it comes to privacy comes down to the choices we make. Call me naive, but I still believe in democracy. On a very regular and predictable schedule we Americans get to exercise a very valuable right to choose our leaders for ourselves. What the government does from there is, in part, a result of those choices we make as citizens.
We need to decide.
Are we going to demand more and better safety and security from our government? Then we need to get used to the idea of domestic “spying.” We’ll suffer much less angst and anxiety if we stop agonizing and complaining about government spying (and profiling). How else do we expect the government to keep us safe?
We’ll also be well-served if we stop deluding ourselves into thinking that the NSA gives a shit about our cell phone calls. Sorry, John and Jane Q. Public, but you’re just not that important or that interesting. Get over yourselves. All we can hope for is that government officials will learn how to spy in a digital world really, really well from the real experts at Google, Facebook, et. al. We don’t want to inadvertently be caught up in any plans to foil terrorism, the Tsarnaevs notwithstanding. Either way, keep reminding yourself that Minority Report was just a movie. There will be crime and terrorism in the future, and no amount of surveillance can prevent all of it.
Now, if you prefer privacy – absolute, unequivocal, Rand Paul Libertarian-type privacy – then I think you need to be prepared to sacrifice some of that (false?) sense of safety and security. Just don’t be too surprised when “bullshit” is called on your complaints when (not if) the next heinous crime is committed. If security requires advanced knowledge and that knowledge comes from data and you don’t want the government to have that data, then you don’t get as much security and you really don’t have much of a leg to stand on to complain about less security.
We’ve been told in the past, and we’re told still today, that all this data surveillance helps to foil terrorist plots. I hope that’s true, but how do we know? We’re not privy to the details. If we’re going to take the government’s word for it when the GOP is in the majority and in the White House then we have to take the word of the Democrats on that, too, don’t we?
So, if privacy is your stronger desire then my advice is to start by cutting up your credit cards. Follow that with deleting all your online accounts. Next, close all of your bank accounts and use the cash to secure a one-room shack in the middle of the woods. I hear there’s a vacancy without running water or electricity in Montana.
If we’re really concerned about what the government knows about us and how they learn it, we at least have elections where we get to vote for our fellow citizens who ostensibly will represent us and our interests.
Who knows? If we elect candidates who actually care more about the rights of people than they do the big money special interests and corporations then we might even end up with a government that gives us back a little of our privacy without sacrificing too much security.
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“Timeline of NSA Domestic Spying”, Electronic Frontier Foundation. https://www.eff.org/nsa-spying/timeline
“Bush Let’s U.S. Spy On Callers Without Courts”, New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/16/politics/16program.html?pagewanted=print&_r=0
“Speak Softly and Carry a Big Data”, The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/06/nsa-prism-big-data-national-security.html
“Surveillance Cameras Sought by Cities After Boston Bombing”, Bloomberg. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-04-29/surveillance-cameras-sought-by-cities-after-boston-bombs.html
“Inside Congress” The New York Times. http://politics.nytimes.com/congress/votes/112/senate/1/84 and http://politics.nytimes.com/congress/votes/112/house/1/376