My surveillance problem and yours

You can always retrieve that lost e-mail: The Utah Data Center, also known as the Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center, under construction near Bluffdale, Utah photo: Swilsonmc

Bay Area tech companies found themselves in some unfamiliar, muddied waters when it was reported in a British newspaper that a massive U.S. government spy program was collecting daily records on pretty much every user of Verizon. Next came disputed claims that the government had direct access to the central databases of such tech giants as Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Google, and others.

Edward Snowden, the young CIA contractor who leaked the tech surveillance information, fled to Hong Kong, saying he had faith in its legal system to protect him. He is really saying he has faith in China’s legal system, because despite the promises of hands-off, two-systems coexistence with Hong Kong, the province is part of China and is less separate than Puerto Rico is from the United States. If Snowden thinks China, one of the biggest cyber warriors and the most famous censor of the Internet, is his defender in his quest, well, that’s his delusion. If he knows China’s reputation but went into its grasp anyway, that might just be the compromise he was willing to make to try to get himself beyond the United States’ legal grasp.

Enough of Snowden. What about you? Should you be worried about these Big Brother revelations? Should you be comforted that the government has such an aggressive information-gathering apparatus? Some of each?

For some perspective, listen to the Good Doctor, the late Isaac Asimov.

More than three decades ago, Asimov criticized George Orwell’s 1984 nightmare in which Big Brother saw everything you did, arguing that “This is an extraordinarily inefficient system of keeping everyone under control. To have a person being watched at all times means that some other person must be doing the watching at all times (at least in the Orwellian society) and must be doing so very narrowly, for there is a great development of the art of interpreting gesture and facial expression. One person cannot watch more than one person in full concentration, and can only do so for a comparatively short time before attention begins to wander. … And then, of course, the watchers must themselves be watched, since no one in the Orwellian world is suspicion-free.”

But Asimov, one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time and a scientist to boot, wasn’t considering the incredible advancements in technology sifting and watching that have taken place since then. For the government isn’t putting a human being in front of a monitor to track the movements of each person suspected of being a terrorist sympathizer; it is using advanced databases and data-mining techniques that make Facebook and Google look like Amish farmers. By noting every phone number dialed in this country, it looks for people who might be contacting known or suspected terrorists. When it has enough information, then it gets authorization to get into the content of the calls themselves.

To some people, even that is intrusion too far; to others, it is just common sense defense against a diffuse, smart and determined enemy.

But if that’s the case, are you still worried? Some no doubt are; meanwhile, another portion of the outraged slide away, confident that their iPhone isn’t butt-dialing al-Qaeda, so they have nothing to worry about.

It’s not at all hard to think of ways this can — and surely will, sooner or later — be misused. You’re a president who wants to dig up dirt on your opponents? Search their e-mails, web searches, and phone calls for any dirt on infidelities or politically incorrect comments. You’re an official who thinks LGBT people should be in prison? Find every e-mail from teenage kids seeking help online. You’re a businessman who’s bought the congressman who runs an intelligence committee? Get the inside chatter of your competitors.

It will be misused. Guaranteed. Because everything is. If a random government contractor or a low-level soldier can release tons of secret documents to the world, then certainly we’ll see others abuse this system, too.

The fundamentalist re-sponse is to repeat the old Benjamin Franklin line, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” If being able to sext is an essential liberty to you and if not having your loved ones blown up by religious fanatics constitutes “a little temporary safety,” then keep quoting. More likely, reasonable people will be conflicted on this when they consider all the possibilities on both sides, and they should seriously know what they have given up and what they are getting. Both are important.

The problem is that it is also not at all hard to think of ways that it can be disastrous for us if the government is unable to track terrorists and their enablers.

Manhattan used to be sniffed at with disdain by conservatives as a home to anti-American lefties, just like they sniff at San Francisco. But if you, like I did, stopped at the street corner on Manhattan’s Park Avenue South one day on the way home from work a week after 9/11, and when a bus carrying troops drove by you were surprised to be among a crowd of commuters applauding, you know that it’s easy to sniff at people who worry about national security until national insecurity blows up a few blocks away from you.

And yes, I applauded. It’s a better compromise than moving to Hong Kong.

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