My first reaction to the revelation that the NSA and FBI have been spying on pretty much everyone on the planet Earth was a very strong impulse to express sympathy, if not condolences, to the poor fucks working for those organizations charged with homing in on the daily affairs of lo those many human souls. I can’t scroll any distance into my Facebook feed before I want to dive out of the nearest window without a helmet.
I’ve involuntarily listened to a couple of million cellphone calls in every conceivable public place, and I can report that what I have learned so far is only that any inhibition preventing you from boring the living shit out of me against my will clearly does not exist. Just once I’d like to hear somebody confess to murder while hogging up space in the frozen vegetable section at Trader Joe’s.
In defense of the administration and the national security state, what they’re Hoovering up are essentially records, dates of calls, length of calls, which numbers called which numbers. Apparently even super snoops can’t stomach poring over the insipid contents of our daily lives without an order to do so.
Speaking only for myself, I don’t mind if they can discern that I have called my drug dealer four times over the previous week, and once at an entirely inappropriate but entirely necessary time of night, as long as they don’t know the number making the call was me, and the number answering the call was him. They’re supposed to get a warrant in order to attach that personally identifying information, and they are not, according to the government, zeroing in on anything other than foreign communication of a suspicious nature. On the other hand, who the hell knows what they’re actually doing?
The biggest problem is that most Americans will trade privacy for security any day, horribly unfortunate as that may be. There is little political price to pay for defending invasive or overly broad surveillance if you’re a politician as long as the bulk of citizenry is happy with such a queasy trade off. And there’s hell to pay if you’re in a position of leadership, say President of the United States, and a deadly attack occurs, whether anything humanly possible could have prevented it or not. So the incentive is entirely in the direction of more surveillance. Politicians defending it aren’t exactly irrational, even if they’re not exactly principled either. Shocking.
The tarp of secrecy covering the goings on at the FISA Court may be unnecessary and un-American, the Patriot Act and its amendments expanding the scope of spying to just about everybody everywhere may be insidious and ridiculous. But all of it can be mitigated or remedied through the political process. There simply has been little or no will to effectuate such a modification. Every indication from reality shows to social media seems to suggest most of your fellow Americans by far are more desperate to expose the wonder and the tedium of their existence to as many other people as possible than they are desperate, or even minimally concerned about protecting privacy.
Edward Snowden isn’t exactly Julius Rosenberg here either. He just let a very big cat out of an extremely dubious bag. In fact, the cat spent some time out of the bag seven years ago, when it was widely reported that authorities were using telecom companies to data mine and Hoover metadata from virtually everything moving across their wires and switches. So this is less The Great Escape, than Cat Bag Escape Redux. Most of us already were assuming every breath we take was being recorded in real time somewhere up at The Castle.
The charges by some of the usual scum-coated suspects that Edward Snowden is Benedict Arnold 2.0, endangering lives, diminishing Americans’ safety or putting a dent in the vast security regime are farce indeed. It’s there on the very first page of the Young Jihadist’s Guide to Terrorism: EVERYTHING IS BUGGED! Snowden exposed a program, not a bunch of double agents, or the KFC extra crispy recipe or the pin number for the nuclear arsenal.
Some of our commentators and ace pundits have made a great deal of hay about polls showing Democrats largely opposed to NSA surveillance activities when Bush and Cheney were in charge of the store, but largely in favor of them under President Obama, as if this were some damning indictment of polarization. No difference between Barack Obama and Dick Cheney? Are you fucking kidding me? You mean, Dick Cheney, Big Brother’s Big Brother? The man who has more Orwellian schemes buzzing around in his authoritarian skull than Orwell did? Yeah, there’s a difference.
I confess to having reached DSM-V level pessimism when it comes to personal privacy at this stage, what with Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook leaning into my personal information, and when every major American corporation and financial institution can stalk me with impunity. I’m mostly resigned to being a human digital billboard. But it would be nice if the will could be mustered by citizens and politicians to at the very least demand a great, great deal more transparency in the murky workings of the military-industrial–surveillance complex, even with the understanding that in this electronic age of ours, effective security and Fourth Amendment absolutes are unlikely to peacefully coexist.