This article originally appeared in the 6.13.13 issue of Metroland
‘Spose I have to write about this NSA spying mess,
right? I shudder at the thought. I’ve only been following it casually, and just
the conflicting headlines make my brain hurt.
It’s a huge story, but it’s not a new story, and the mainstream press,
to the extent it’s covering this at all, is once again doing us a huge
disservice with a total lack of critical insight as to what’s happening.
all, no, there are no government brown-shirts pouring over your flirty texts to
your boyfriend, your prescription refill call to Rite Aid, or your latest
Facebook post about some poor pooch who’s gonna be gassed in the morning at a
dog pound in Texas unless somebody does something. That’s not happening. No, Obama hasn’t jack-booted the reigns of
power or black-helicoptered your inner-most thoughts. You wouldn’t know that, though, if all you
see are the headlines.
even appear that the administration has broken the law. And that’s not to say things are OK. But things aren’t as bad as the media is
portraying them. Keep in mind, this is a
thread that includes the phony IRS scandal that the media loved, followed
quickly by the Department of Justice leak investigations of a couple of
reporters that caused the media to rise up in righteous indignation, maybe even
more so than when the media wasn’t allowed to follow Obama around the golf
course a few months ago. Sigh.
to be happening is that the government is getting enforceable orders from a secret
court to seize huge datasets from telephone, internet, and social media
companies, datasets that contain tracking info, metadata, of foreign
communications that it deems to be suspicious.
These huge datasets also contain lots of tracking info of domestic
calls, because that’s apparently how the data is constructed. The government claims it is only interested
in the foreign traffic, and disregards the domestic stuff. The government doesn’t get any of the actual
content of the communications, just info regarding source, recipient, duration,
etc. And all of this is dutifully
reported to Congress on a periodic basis.
And it’s all totally within the law and it’s been going on for years.
Oh, and the
various communications companies don’t appear to be letting government spooks
run willy-nilly through your stuff either.
Rather, when served with a secret order from the secret court, the
companies (some of which may have challenged the orders, and lost) secretly
gather up the required info and more or less secretly dropbox it to the
proceeding paragraphs could very well be big loads of crap, but it’s the most
logical explanation I can concoct from distilling the best sources I could find
So it’s the
law that allows this that’s the problem. Or is it? In the days following 9-11, we allowed a lot
of our privacy to get pissed away with Congress’ passage of the Patriot Act
because we were all a-skeered of them crazy Ay-rabs flying more jets into our
skyscrapers. And the laws have been
reauthorized, broadened, deepened and strengthened by Congress over and over
again. What you’re reading about now
isn’t new. A handful of Senators and
lots of scholars and commentators have been bemoaning the death of privacy for
a long time. We’ve been doing it right
here for as long as we’ve been right here.
you probably haven’t been violated as badly as you’ve been led to believe, yeah,
you’ve probably been violated. Do you
care? I mean, most of us don’t care that
our online browsing habits are closely monitored by marketing companies, so
when we spend 20 minutes online looking at, say, spatulas, for the next several
weeks we’re targeted with ads for spatulas.
It’s not magic! We accept
it. It’s actually kind of cool, right? So we really don’t mind that kind of
surveillance, but now we’re furiously beating our chests because the broad
contours of our communications may end up in a digital stew that the government
uses to keep crazy people from blowing us up?
Yes that was
a rhetorical question. Of course I don’t
trust the government, either. But the data
is out there, and the question isn’t so much whether it should be used but how,
and under what conditions? Secret laws,
secret courts, and secret orders subject only to secret “congressional
oversight” is not acceptable. This is
tantamount to sending rodeo clowns in to do heart surgery. Notions of privacy are changing at an almost
incomprehensible pace, but we haven’t yet and need not devolve into an
Orwellian or Kafkaesque state. I hope.
Paul Rapp is an
attorney in the Berkshires who not only wears a tin foil hat 24-7, he makes his
dogs wear them, too.