I’ve struggled over the last few days as I’ve continued to read more about the surveillance that the NSA has done on Americans, and the incredible amount of metadata that our government has at its fingertips to use when a situation presents itself.
I find that I am of two minds when it comes to this issue. To some degree, I recognize that I am a part of a digital era, wherein it has become much easier for people to show off every bit of their lives on a screen for anyone to consume. I’ve had a blog since 2001, and have written about all sorts of things. I even wrote about this exact issue awhile back. I personally felt that at some point, this “digital self” cultural shift is a tidal wave, and the best I can do is try to surf on it without getting buried. So when employers inevitably see my Facebook wall or Twitter feed, they’ll see them relatively unfiltered, and I try to use them (and this blog) with the audience of “the whole world” in mind. Many people who actively use modern technology work against this openness and try to exclude people, but I believe at the end of the day they’re going to lose. For every new protection, there will be a dozen new ways to overcome it. We value that at times, and we revile it still at other times. So if I am going to use these technologies, why not be willing to be open? After all, it is possible to not use it in spite of every prepubescent adolescent’s screaming protestation – my wife has not had a Facebook account for nearly year, and I can report no ill effects.
But, this has all been my choice. I chose to have Facebook, chose to use it in the way I do, and choose to continue as I want. If I want to delete it, it’s my choice. And that’s where the NSA revelations have been particularly disconcerting. Irrespective of privacy policies, which have become unintelligible shields to allow companies to do what they wish, I’m not convinced I was given an option to not have my information aggregated somewhere or not. Again, I always have the option to refuse a service, but if what these organizations are doing really protect the public interest (or, in the case of some of the private organizations, their shareholders who are also users), does the opaque nature of our contract really help anyone?
I tried to distill this down to something a little less vague, and why I’m convinced that this is our generation’s Watergate moment, and why no one is going to do anything about it.
As a homeowner, it turns out I really care about keeping my home safe and secure. I spend hundreds of dollars a month on monitoring equipment to make sure no one breaks in. I don’t spend as much as I could, but I make sure to maintain a modest security system, make sure that my locks work, and keep my garage door closed – some people will want more, some will want less. When something’s wrong, the police will come and help me, and I like that. I trust CPD, I trust the level of safety I have.
Now, let’s say tomorrow while I’m home I get a knock at the door and a government representative comes to my door and says “hey, we’d like to make you more safe, so we’re going to sit on your porch every day and watch who comes in and out of the house, and when we think there may be something going on, we’re going to walk in unannounced and walk around. You don’t really have a choice when we come in, it’s just when we think so”.
I’m gonna say no.
But what if the representative then says “Oh? Well, sorry to hear that. Especially considering there’s a strong chance that someone at any given time is going to break in here and kill all of you and burn your house down. In fact, we believe that it could happen at any moment. You’re not really ever safe. So, really, your options are to put yourself in constant risk of having you and your wife killed, or have us stationed here. You know that were weren’t there for those folks down the street and everything that they had was obliterated. And I mean bad. Don’t forget that. Here’s some pictures and video about it so you remember, and make sure to turn on the TV so that you hear about it some more. It happened again to people six hours away, too – in Detroit. It could happen here. And it’s been happening for the last 10 years – you’ve grown up it. What do you think now?”
Now I’m thinking I might be a bad husband if I don’t do something. My wife dying because of my inattention to our security is unfathomable and unforgivable. And Detroit! That’s right down the way! It’s a Midwest city! People right down the street, too! And let’s not forget the permanency of death, so maybe yeah, I’ll take the representative up on his or her offer, after all.
But then again.
On a long enough time frame, the chances of a violent crime will increase simply because of my exposure to the outside world. And I don’t live in a violent neighborhood, nor do I live in a violent city, really – there were right around 5,400 violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault) in a city of 770,122 for the last reporting period that ODPS has (2010). That’s about 6 violent crimes for every 1,000 people. The way that my rep makes it sound, it’s like it’s happening everywhere all the time and is coming to me next. The pictures and commentary of the devastation is terrible, so it burns in my head the consequences.
That fear isn’t necessarily rational, but when I consider that I haven’t known anything else for the last few years, I may just consent because I don’t know the alternative.
That’s my fear today with PRISM and all of the NSA work. The consequence of another 9/11 is heavy enough of people’s minds that we’re willing to sacrifice our freedoms to avoid it, even though the realities of terrorist attacks on our soil are limited. Scenes from the WTC and Boston continue to grip us so that reality is inconsequential. So sure, I’m mad that my Verizon info and my emails are stored somewhere, but hey, it may mean that a terrorist won’t bomb San Francisco (do any of you feel as offended reading that as I did writing it?).
One final thing – David Brooks wrote an editorial yesterday in which he criticizes Edward Snowden for leaking this information, in essence arguing that Snowden violated the basic moral contract with the American public. This quote is helpful:
For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things.
This would be acceptable is Snowden, 29, would have had a reference for “basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures”. As someone in the same generation as Snowden, I can say unequivocally that has not been the case. Our government has given very little in demonstrating that trust to its people, especially since 9/11, when many of us shaped as solidified our own worldviews. To assume that this is not a failing of cultural transference from one generation to the next is to miss much of the problem. My generation has watched my parent’s generation and its representatives make a mockery of the basic tenants of civility, justice, and respect out of selfishness and greed. At best, we choose to right wrongs within the system, and at worst we just try to upend it. That’s all Snowden did. And Mr. Brooks is just simply continuing his generation’s modus operandi of blame without self-reflection.