Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Actually, I do kind of care that the government is spying on me

The National Security Agency (NSA) says they had a court warrant to collect the ‘metadata’ (times, phone numbers, duration and frequency) of phone calls from all Verizon, AT&T and Sprint customers, over 250 million Americans. The NSA also has access to all kinds of online content (email, web searches, file transfer, live chats, etc.) directly from the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple.  None of this is under dispute, despite some weak denials. Who you call, what websites you visit, everything you say online (except through Twitter, which so far hasn’t cooperated) is being recorded.

I’m not going to address the questions of whether Edward Snowden was a hero or a traitor for letting the rest of us know that this was going on, or whether the NSA was within its legal rights to collect this kind of information. I don’t claim to be an expert on either constitutional law or whistleblowing. I’m also going to leave aside the question of whether this kind of spying is effective.

I do, however, have an opinion about how much we should care about any of this. I think we should care a lot.

I’ve heard people argue that they don’t mind the NSA spying on them because they’ve never done anything wrong. Maybe not, but are you sure you’ve never done anything that could be misconstrued? You’ve never sent an email that you later regretted? Or posted an inappropriate comment on Facebook? We all have enough ‘stuff’ out there on the internet that anyone wanting to put together a negative portfolio of us could easily do so. That’s why the police aren’t allowed to indiscriminately search your house for no reason. A thorough enough fishing expedition is bound to turn up something, especially if every piece of data can be saved for a ‘rainy day’, like when your political opponent wants to discredit you.

I’ve also heard people say that the sheer volume of data is itself protective. 'The government can’t possibly sift my data out of the haystack of online information.' If that’s true today, it certainly won’t be within a few years. We will have the capacity to record, store and retrieve any particular piece of information about anyone. Of that I have no doubt.

Okay, the truth is that the vast majority of Americans will never notice nor care a day in their lives whether the NSA or any other government agency is collecting data on them. I’m not really worried about the government showing up at my door, and I’m certainly not afraid to post this blog, even though I’m using Apple, Google and Facebook to do so. However, if you think your online life doesn’t connect in any meaningful way to your real life, think about this. Snowden was tracked to his Hong Kong hotel by twitter users identifying the lighting and furnishings in the background of his video (though he had already checked out by then). Anyone looking through our online information can find out anything he wants about us.

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