Sunday, June 09, 2013

Big Brother is Watching, Listening, and Storing. And He Doesn't Always Work for the Big, Bad GovernmentTM

On June 6th, 1949, George Orwell's classic novel 1984 was published. Orwell established the date of the title by reversing the last two digits of the year he wrote the book - 1948. He died in 1950 without knowing that he set his story of a society based on universal government monitoring and surveillance and control about 29 years too early. The leader of the government was the almost mythical figure of "Big Brother," and citizens were always reminded that "Big Brother Is Watching" ...

This past week, with the revelation that the National Security Agency* is working with communications and internet service providers to vacuum up the billions of telephone calls, e-mails, tweets, and other electronic communications that fly across the country every day, there are outraged cries from Congress and the public about the arrival - 29 years late - of the total surveillance culture described by George Orwell.

As you might suspect, I have a few ideas about that.

We Americans have a long history of distrust of government, going all the way back to the time of the Revolution. The Bill of Rights - the first ten amendments to the Constitution - grant all of us a wide range of rights and freedoms not granted in many other countries**, including a right we believe we have, but that isn't actually guaranteed under the Constitution ... the right to privacy.

That's right.

You have no Constitutionally-guaranteed right to privacy. What most people think of when they think of a right to privacy are the rights guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

You are guaranteed protection against unreasonable searches, which is not quite the same thing as being guaranteed privacy. And although there are many legal safeguards, invisible to most of us, that are intended to prevent abuse of the government's ability to compromise our privacy and protect us from unreasonable searches, the fact remains that we live today in a surveillance society ... and not all of that surveillance is carried out by the government and executed under legal controls intended to prevent (or at least, minimize) abuse.

Every time you scan your "preferred customer" card at the local supermarket, every time you place an order online, every time you make a cell phone call to a business, every time you cross a busy street or sit in a public place, you are allowing yourself to be scanned, recorded, imaged***, bent, folded, spindled, and mutilated. The telephone number and other personal data you write down on the warranty registration for your new appliance is sold, resold, packaged, analyzed, and parsed by dozens of individuals and data mining companies who are not restricted by the Fourth Amendment. The jerky video of you jaywalking across the street because you were too lazy to walk down to the crosswalk is maintained in a database somewhere, where someday a face-recognition program may decide that you look like a person wanted for some other, more heinous crime. The other day a friend of mine posted this on his Facebook page:

"Yesterday I did a post congratulating someone for earning her Master of Divinity. Today an ad popped up offering me Master of Divinity programs. Coincidence? I think not."

No, it isn't a coincidence. Big Brother is, indeed, watching. And he doesn't always work for the Big, Bad GovernmentTM.

There are a great many questions - both legitimate and asinine - being asked about what the NSA is doing. These are accompanied by the predictable howls of outrage from the left and the right for someone's head on a plate****. Nevertheless, it was not an out-of-control intelligence community that started all this ... it was Congress, in its speedy passage and routine renewal of the Patriot Act and other well-intentioned (yet, in hindsight, perhaps Constitutionally questionable) legislation, that established the foundation for all the actions that are now being questioned and villified. You can read the whole story here (and you should).

The next time Americans are killed in a terrorist attack (and it will happen, this being that kind of world), representatives of the intelligence and national security communities will be sitting in front of the cameras being thundered at by irate members of Congress for not predicting the attack and doing something in advance to prevent it. For all their faults and often questionable provisions, the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act are some of those things we've chosen to do. Let us not throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

And if you can't have a right to privacy, why not just settle for the right to be left alone ...

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


* Because of its penchant for extreme secrecy, often jocularly known as "No Such Agency."

** Try exercising your freedom of worship in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, or your right to bear arms almost anywhere else in the world, and you'll see what I mean.

*** One day, on a whim, I decided to count the number of surveillance cameras that were taking my picture between the time I left my house and the time I arrived at my office in the Pentagon. I stopped counting at 25.

**** Prefereably the President's, from the GOP perspective ... which conveniently forgets that the Patriot Act was enacted under a Republican president, and still has plenty of members of Congress of both parties supporting the routine extension of some of its more controversial provisions.


eViL pOp TaRt said...

A lesson of this is that no administration is going to willingly relinquish powers, even though it might have come out as opposed to those in the past. Yes, there are others watching: those stray cookies on the computer, the "loyalty cards," and other means of tapping into your buying patterns are commonplace.

At least being patted down by TSA is overrate as something to worry about.

Elvis Wearing a Bra on His Head said...

I find those courtesy cards used by various stores and restaurants to be cumbersome -- even the ones that are small enough to fit on my keychain. And the savings my drug store offers is illusory.

Funny thing, the current administration had a change of heart about that surveillance. Lord Acton, anyone?

Mike said...

"Yesterday I did a post ... Today an ad popped up..."

'Today'? How about 'next'!

Big Sky Heidi said...

Makes me lose my appetite for cookies.

eViL pOp TaRt said...

It dawned upon me that the government employees who have to listen to all of those calls or read all of that data must find it hellish to be subjected to a tidal wave of trivia. Can you imagine having to listen to Aunt Emma's account of her bowel movements?