When I first heard about the Patriot Acts during the Bush administration I was irate. Snooping on Americans was something Americans have always said would be seen as a challenge to our liberty and we have always believed that such invasion of our privacy would signal that the great American freedom experience might be in danger of ending. We let this challenge to our liberty slide, in spite of much protest, because 9/11 made us afraid. Perhaps that is always how freedom is lost, quietly and stealthily out of real or imagined fear for personal safety. I was, for some reason, most shocked when I heard that the government could subpoena my library records. How tame this seems now.
This week, whistleblower/leaker Edward Snowden told us the extent of the intelligence “industry” in America and we were shocked all over again. I will say that we were not as shocked as we should have been, and it is clear that we have learned to accept that our privacy is practically nonexistent all ready. We have cameras in high crime neighborhoods to help apprehend predators and to help keep citizens safe. Anyone who uses the internet and believes that we have any privacy on our computers is delusional or lives in a bubble without TV crime shows or TV News. There are cameras to catch speeders and cameras on stores and cameras on buildings and cameras on ATM’s and most of us even have cameras on our computers. NCIS is one of America’s favorite TV shows and we have seen what Abby can do with a totaled computer and what McGee can do when he tracks cell phones and hacks into bank accounts and even government agencies. We buy something and an ad pops up on our Facebook page, as if we will buy again from the same company on the next business day. We have come to accept all of this and it may help keep many of us on the straight and narrow.
However, lack of privacy on the internet and a government that has the ability to spy on its citizens (whether it uses it or not) are two very different things. Our government has armed support from the Armed Services of the United States. In fact right now a General is the head of the NSA so the military already is involved in this endeavor that could be turned against Americans some day. Not only is data being collected from our phone records and or email but a huge new complex of buildings is being constructed in Utah and thousands of computer-savvy Americans have been hired to facilitate this record collection, to develop algorithms to sort through these records and to look for “suspicious” activities (with foreign connections we are told) that might require a closer look. We didn’t know that new facilities were being built (with our money). We didn’t realize that this operation is so big that this new complex in Utah is not large enough to house the whole operation and that some of this work has been farmed out to independent contractors. Yikes!
What we have here, if you look at it in one way, is a jobs program; even better, a jobs program that will help employ those jobless 21-34 year-olds who have been hit hard by our current economy. That is the positive part of this “industry”. However, this program should not be something that Americans find acceptable and encourage. There are too many possibilities for abuse and too few interventions that keep us safe. We already realize that there is no way that every terrorist act can be ferreted out and prevented. This endeavor is enormous and it is enormously costly and I hope that we will find that it is too ineffective in terms of costs and outcomes to continue with this snooping. We need to pare this back and make if more about pinpoint accuracy and less about trolling through data. It may, in the end, bring us much more powerful computers; but we cannot protect our freedom by giving it away.
Keep the complex in Utah, keep all the idealistic young IT guys and girls, but give them the task of configuring systems which cannot be hacked, systems that will protect our infrastructure. This would be a very useful application for an intelligence operation to come up with. Then they could work out systems for government departments that would be totally secure and could not be hacked by foreign powers or hackers who just want to earn their chops. Let them earn their chops helping America, instead of selling out America. No one should be able to access the design plans for our weapons or our electric grid. Stop spying; start using these excellent new resources to defend America’s privacy. We must have some geniuses who could give us at least a decade of secrecy in the areas where secrecy will really pay off.