The NSA is the brick and mortar incarnation of the Patriot Act. I naively thought that the Patriot Acts would be overturned when Democrats took office. But the Patriot Acts are part of our reaction to the “War on Terror” and the “War on Terror” will be with us for quite a while.
Being under surveillance by government is, however, a recurring American nightmare. We have lost lots of our freedoms and much of our privacy. Cell phones and computers and perhaps even cable TV inure us to an acceptance of privacy leaks that can be anywhere from tiny drips to floods of information encompassing every aspect of our lives. No, we do not see someone (like Big Brother) every day monitoring us and lecturing us and threatening us, but the citizens in 1984 at least understood that they had zero privacy. We don’t know when, or if, or how much we are being watched. Do we have 95% privacy, 20% privacy or none? Is your phone tapped, is someone capturing your texts, is someone following you on your GPS or phone, can people see you through the video cam on your computer? I know they can ask to see our reading history at the library, but can they reach into our computers and see our search history? If you use a debit card every purchase you make with it is public; can this routinely be accessed by authorities? Does the NSA know all your meds which would basically reveal your medical history? Computers make spying, both domestic and foreign very easy. Even very secure computers have been hacked. The limits on spying are not made public, although nonspecific public assurances are offered.
I don’t go anywhere on the internet that could be considered subversive but I do write this blog, which frequently takes a certain political point of view. Does this make me more interesting? Does it make me a likely target of domestic espionage? I usually try not to think about it.
I like to assume that our government has much bigger fish to fry than little me. I like to assume that our government’s interest in Americans is benign, unless and until it can’t afford to be. But it would be oh so easy to overstep. Overstepping could start out small and gradually snowball into an authoritarian horror story. What guarantees are there for the American people? There should be some secure oversight.
This technique our government uses of sweeping in all data and putting it through a sieve of key words or search terms or suspect language is an enormous undertaking. Will we gradually be able to refine how much info must be taken in? Then we have to store the info in case we need future access to it. This is also a vast exercise in overkill which we will hopefully lessen by learning more about what needs to be saved. The temptation will be very great to save data that seems criminal, but not necessarily terrorist. Is that already happening? That would be a betrayal of the trust of the American people because it was not the original purpose of the “spying” operations.
As to foreign “spying”, or information scanning and storage, I’m sure our allies appreciate that terrorists have staged some devastating violence in those country’s belonging to our allies. However, I don’t blame them for being shocked and angry that we have been collecting foreign data. This is not a joint allied operation. This is America rolling its old spy network into its new digital locate-and-disable-terrorists network and no one knew that we were saving records for foreign citizens (let alone foreign leaders). Don’t we trust their spying operations? This seems like more of that arrogance the world bemoans in Americans. And we got caught, out-ed. We definitely “have some ‘splaining to do.” So far, we have not used the info we gathered (hopefully) in any inappropriate ways. But the damage is not what we did with the information but that we collected info that we could have probably asked for permission to collect from our allies, but we did not do that.
I don’t believe that America will dismantle its spy network, tear down that whole huge new campus built to house some of the NSA and fire all those listeners. (The New York Times today suggests that we just might consider doing this.) Truthfully, this week I have come to wish that we could get over our love affair with the internet and computers. I don’t want to go backwards on everything, but I would like to go back to the ways we used to spy and other old technology. Given that we will not be doing that, how do people stay vigilant; will we know when to draw the line, when to say no, when to make rules about how much the government can weasel its way into our private business. It’s a tough one and we are so passive. I don’t think we will be able to backstop this. Good-bye freedom, it was nice knowing you.