Sunday, June 16, 2013

Seems I've Heard All This Before

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The story is told in these parts of a local lawyer who, many years ago, was appointed to represent a man on a charge of indecent exposure.

Sadly, it wasn’t said defendant’s first such charge. In fact, it seems that the disturbed young man had a long record of flashing people. Thinking quickly, the lawyer argued that the law defined “indecent exposure” as the display of one’s “private parts.” This man, the lawyer argued, had displayed himself so many times that none of his parts could be considered “private” any more.

Case dismissed.

If the law ever catches up with Edward Snowden, the former “civilian contractor” who claims to be the inside source for a spate of recent news stories revealing the extent of government data collection of phone and Internet traffic, he could always use the defense my long-ago colleague used: This stuff’s so well-known and has been documented for so long, it’s not really secret.

See, I’m a little bemused (not to mention amused) by the people who are suddenly shocked — SHOCKED, I tell you — to find out that the government is (1) collecting the metadata (which number called which other number and for how long) from millions of phone conversations; and (2) collecting data regarding people’s interactions on the Internet, including “search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats,” as reported in the British newspaper The Guardian.

My bemusement (and amusement) are caused by the fact that I thought it was pretty much common knowledge that this was going on. I mean, if I knew and was writing about the phone thing as far back as 2006 (and I was), the knowledge must have been pretty doggone common.

I also recall a conversation I had with someone discussing the government’s collection of Internet data.

“What’s the matter?” the person smirked. “Is there something in your Google searches you don’t want someone to see?”

I answered that, since my online research for the book I was writing had recently included searches on child pornography distribution networks and Claymore mines, I did have concerns that someone might get the wrong idea. (The book, by the way, was my novel “Breaking Cover,” which first came out in 2005. Still available on Amazon. Just saying.)

Anyway, anyone who’s surprised to find out that the government has been using sophisticated computers to spy on phone and Internet traffic really hasn’t been paying a heck of a lot of attention the past few years. What some people claim to be upset about is the breathtaking amount of data trawled by the government’s electronic nets.
“We had no idea,” they claim, “that when we handed incredible amounts of authority to collect data to a government equipped with massive banks of supercomputers, they’d go after THIS much!”

There’s a word for people like that. That word is “fools.”

See, the real scandal is, it’s all legal. In fact, the best thing said about this whole kerfluffle came from John Oliver on his first night as summer host of “The Daily Show.” “We’re not saying that you broke any laws,” he said to the president and the NSA. “It’s just a little weird that you didn’t have to.”

The entire PRISM program, which began in 2007, was a successor to the widely criticized “Terrorist Surveillance Program,” which began after 9/11 under the President Who Must Not Be Named. The TSP drew fire because it hadn’t been authorized by law or overseen by anyone, including the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

PRISM, on the other hand, was created under the umbrella of the Protect America Act of 2007 and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which were renewed by Congress under President Obama in 2012 (because once you give one president power, the next ones are unlikely to give it back). All of this happened without much comment by anyone, except a few liberal bloggers like Glenn Greenwald (who helped write the Guardian story), and libertarian conservatives like Ron Paul.

That’s another one of the weird things about this whole debate — it’s created some of the strangest bedfellows since Billy Bob Thornton took up with Angelina Jolie. Liberal California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican House Speaker John Boehner both called Snowden a “traitor” and defended the surveillance program, while Glenn Beck and Michael Moore have hailed Snowden as a hero.

So, with the ideological walls crumbling, will some actual, nonpartisan scrutiny be given to the claim that “we need to invade your privacy, because of TERRORISM”? Will we finally get an honest, non-party-driven debate over what privacy actually means in an increasingly nonprivate, nonsecured, globally networked datasphere most of us barely understand?

Well, we live in hope.


Fran said...

I've been unsurprised by all this as well. Any bookstore employee paying any kind of attention knew this was going on -- and had the potential to get really ugly -- once The Patriot Act was signed into law.

That it's legal is the scandal, not that it's happening. You're absolutely right, Dusty.

Maureen O'Danu said...

I was also unsurprised about the 'revelations' by Snowden... and sadly, equally unsurprised by the new freakout caused by the 'it's okay if Republicans do it' crowd.

In my opinion, Snowden has committed treason -- not for revealing that there is electronic snooping, but for revealing key operational details about how the program is run. That threatens national security.

Greater oversight of the program would be a partial solution, but the bottom line is that this is the world we are living in. The bad news is that snooping is going to happen, and its going to happen aided by electronic data sifting programs that can collect massive amounts of data. The good news (for privacy) is that it still requires human insight to analyze that data, which is significantly slower and more expensive,and prevents Uncle Sam from knowing exactly what I do every second -- I leave that to Google.