If you’re like most people, and I include myself there for the most part, the news regarding the release of information about government spying on U.S. citizens probably interests you only slightly and only in so how you feel it may hurt our national security programs. That indeed seems to be the case as a recent WashPo/Pew Research Center poll indicates. But underneath this acquiescence of ours is something that is beginning to surface that I think we all should pay a little closer attention to.
Your private information that is now being stored by the NSA may not bother those who feel like they have nothing to hide. Certainly most people who seem unnerved by the revelations that the government is monitoring their electronic communications feel safe in the knowledge that they are not terrorists, at least as they perceive it.
I’ll avoid discussing the details about the very limited constitutional rights that exists for our government to spy on certain individuals because I think we can all agree that we want our government to use this tactic, albeit sparingly, to prevent bad people from hurting us. Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 the Bush administration, through his Justice Department, pushed for more vigorous use of eavesdropping methods hoping to intercept malevolent intents by pernicious folks, especially those who call any predominantly Muslim country their home.
There was little resistance from those who are supposed to represent us in our republican form of government because most people took them at their word that such measures are deemed necessary to prevent another 9/11 tragedy. We are a trusting folk whose democratic principles have guided us for better than two centuries so unlike those raised in totalitarian states we tend to be more trusting that our government will not abuse the privileges we grant them to defend our national security.
Besides, what do we as individuals really know what’s involved here and how best to prevent terrorist attacks from recurring. We hope our tax dollars are paying for the manpower and the equipment to best serve our interests and we hold the ideal that with few exceptions innocent lives are not being damaged by unchecked government surveillance.
Yet many of us know that even the best of people who serve the country’s espionage services can fall to the lure of financial reward, an idealistic notion of fair play or a combination of the two and betray our government secrets with other foreign interests. From Benedict Arnold to Aldrich Ames and Richard Hansen traitors who distanced themselves from the American ideal have filled our history books.
But what of those who retain the American ideal and expose a side of our counterintelligence practices that threaten long held rights embedded in our constitution from the earliest days? They do it not for personal gain or because they share the values of another nation but because they fear that extreme measures are being used that could lead to less liberty for people who accidentally get caught up in some wide dragnet aimed at people and forces they have no association with. Their fate of being in the wrong place at the wrong time could be the only factor that may ruin their lives indefinitely.
The “surreptitious collection of “metadata” — every bit of information about every phone call except the word-by-word content of conversations” as the NY Times refers to it is intended to weed out patterns the intelligence experts have gleaned from known terrorist activities in the past and that fits models designed by our intelligence agencies. Without exception all of your personal means of communications are subject to the collection process and held for an untold period of time. A piece of you is snatched from the air waves and tucked away in a file somewhere that you know nothing about.
“So what!” you may say to yourself. “I’m not engaging in terrorism nor do I intend to, so why should I care if they utilize this method to find the bad guys”. You shouldn’t if once they determine that you’re not a likely suspect they immediately dispose of that information. But they don’t. They keep it and store it for the rest of your life and beyond. Ready to be used by someone who wants to know if you should be working for a private sector employer who may have weak but distinct ties to the vast reaches of government.
The military-industrial complex in the U.S. encompasses a large swath of our economy. If an employer or an associate suspects you of having ties to or sympathies for suspected anti-American or anti-government forces, that collected information may come back and present you as “ a person of interest” to the government. Were you overheard telling a friend on Facebook about how rough you felt you were treated by a TSA agent during the pre-boarding search. Could this seemingly harmless opinion one day force you to pay for legal counsel you likely can’t afford? And even if you are cleared will this blot on your record remain with you for the rest of your life? Very possibly.
This was the sense that Edward Snowden conveyed in his interview with Glen Greenwald of the Guardian newspaper. Snowden was the 29-year old working for the private security firm of Booz-Allen-Hamilton as an infrastructure analyst for the NSA. It was Snowden who released the information that all Americans are having their electronic communications collected and stored by the National Security Agency. When asked by Greenwald “Why should people care about surveillance” here’s how Snowden replied.
“Because even if you’re not even doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded and the storage capabilities of these systems increases every year, consistently, by orders of magnitude, to where it is getting to the point of you don’t have to have done anything wrong. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call. And then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you have ever made, every friend you have ever discussed something with and attack you on that basis to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrong-doer.”
When Snowden chose to expose himself as the person who had released classified government information regarding government surveillance of private citizens, he automatically came under suspicion and was quick to be accused by some of being a “traitor”. He was portrayed in the media as someone who had experienced failure in his life, was now jobless and running from the law. The forces that wanted Snowden contained are already trying to demonize the guy with a persona that the public could hold in contempt, allowing the likely railroading of someone who may simply be nothing more than an honest whistleblower toward a vast security system that few people know very little about.
I don’t quite know how to judge the man yet but in his interview with Greenwald, Snowden made a cogent point that reverberated from something Ben Franklin said about trading freedom for security shortly after he and other delegates completed their task at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia back in 1786. Here’s Snowden’s words:
“If living unfreely but comfortably is something that you’re willing to accept – and I think many of us are, it’s the human nature – you can get up everyday and go to work. You can collect your large paycheck for relatively little work, against the public interest and go to sleep at night after watching your [TV] shows. But if you realize that that’s the world you helped create, and it’s going to get worse with the next generation and the next generation to extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of repression, you realize you might be willing to accept any risk.”
Listening to Snowden speak articulately to the reporter and watching his face as he did so, I simply didn’t get the feeling that he’s a wacko out to make a name for himself. He understood the risks he faced in choosing to release this information. So I have to ask, why would he jeopardize his future if knowing that he is likely to be arrested by the government and sent to prison for many years? He was also courageous enough to make this call, knowing full well that most people won’t care. Too many of us are lazy in our attitudes, not understanding as Edmond Burke did that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
We already live in a society where people are all too willing to expose their private lives on Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media. We too easily sign our rights away when we purchase financial products like credit cards and loans for autos, houses and vacations by agreeing to allow these marketers to share certain information with other marketers who hound us to buy, buy, buy.
It should creep people out as it does me that we so easily allow purveyors of commercialism to know what appeals to us as individuals. I don’t mind others close to me knowing about such things but I am selective in who I share certain things with. When some marketing maven in another part of the country or another part of the world is privy to certain trends of mine that only those close to me should know, I feel violated. They benefit from this knowledge to intrude on my life in the hopes I will spend some of my hard-earned money on whatever it is they will profit from. Unlike a good friend who would counsel me against throwing my money away, these unseen voyeurs in my life will do all they can to squeeze money out me that would be better spent elsewhere are tucked away for future needs.
But, they do so only because I haven’t taken the time to instruct them not to. Your privacy rights are not violated if you fail to inform these marketing pimps that you do not want them to share certain information. But then there is the likelihood too that your credit will be denied if you don’t allow them and their affiliates to track you to some small degree. We could of course choose to pay for everything with cash but that is way too inconvenient for most of us, so we play the game that the financial interests have created.
This is different however with what the government appears to be doing. If Snowden and others like him are correct, patterns of our behavior are monitored without our expressed consent, not know how much they have collected or where they keep it stored. The possibility that some error could occur down the road and I am forced to defend myself against alleged allegations based on a history unrelated to the charges is not something we should be subject to, and definitely not something we should dismiss so passively. It was this kind of gross intrusion into our personal lives that the framers of the constitution and the people who voted for it were set against.
Perhaps there are words of wisdom from Edmond Burke that we all should heed in how we react to this information about government surveillance.
We can’t be critical of those in Washington if we are unwilling to hold them to account.