Monday, August 19, 2013

Listen To Me (As Much As You Want)

Something's been bugging me.

This whole invasion of privacy thing seems to have raised its righteously indignant head again. After 9/11, we Americans didn't much care what our government did if it meant catching the terrorists who orchestrated and financed that horrific act, and preventing further attacks. Ethnic profiling, illegal imprisonment, torture and other civil rights violations – all those methods were fair game if it meant securing our nation and its citizens. Invasion of privacy was another method employed by our intelligence community.

Turns out this one was the kicker. Water-boarding, sleep deprivation, humiliation and incarceration without due process were, well, questionable. But don't you dare read my email! People were up in arms when it was revealed that our phones and online activity was being monitored with impunity. Pundits and novices alike railed and sputtered and pumped their self-righteous fists in the air and cited civil rights statutes that were being trampled upon. What right does our government have to spy on us? How dare they tap my phone, or read my email, or analyze my Internet activity. Yes, many patriotic, God fearing Americans were aghast at the notion of their privacy being violated willy-nilly. My question is: why?

Why should I or you or anybody else give a flip if some nameless, faceless technician in a windowless underground facility in Virginia is reading my email? I've got nothing to hide from the government. In fact, I'm more likely to have things I want to hide from my wife or my mother or my best friend than an intelligence analyst. The government doesn't care about me or my life, as exciting or intriguing as I may think it is. The NSA and the CIA doesn't care who's cheating on their taxes or their spouse. They don't care how much online porn someone's watching, or how many tweets they post, or how many friends they have on Facebook. What they do care about is suspicious activity that could suggest a future terrorist attack.

I'm pretty sure I've been profiled in my adult lifetime. I've been pulled aside at an airport in Europe and I was pulled over in the U.S. for no good reason. Was I offended? Mildy. Was I inconvenienced? You bet. Do I think profiling is wrong? Nope.

The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, was so audacious and beyond the pale, no one thought it could happen. If the CIA had reported that it had somehow stopped an Al-Queda sleeper cell from crashing three commercial airliners into prominent U.S. targets like the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, we wouldn't have believed them. Conspiracy nuts and skeptics would've found some way to discredit the CIA's assertion and 99% of the country would've forgotten about the whole thing by breakfast the next morning. Moreover, the intelligence has continued to receive criticism – rightly so – for their inability to thwart the attack.

But the same people criticizing that lapse in intelligence gathering are now complaining about civil rights violations being perpetrated in the interests of national security. We can't have it both ways. Either an overzealous TSA agent is going to be given free reign to pull me aside and inconvenience me, or a shoe bomber is going to board my flight. Some underpaid analyst at the NSA may monitor my phone, email and Internet activity and discover how much I like Star Trek, but at least he'll also have a fighting chance of intercepting relevant communication between people who want to do our country harm. If Uncle Sam wants to read my email, have at it.

And here's the thing: we shouldn't even know the government is watching us that closely. It's none of our business how the CIA and NSA conduct their business. People like U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning and former CIA and NSA contractor Edward Snowden are not doing anyone a service by leaking sensitive material to the public. We don't need to know how intelligence is collected. And neither do those that would do us harm. Unlimited transparency may seem responsible and civic-minded, but when it comes to the war on terror, all it does is give our enemies a heads-up because —duh!– they watch the news and surf the web, too. (And don't even get me started on Amber Alerts that pop up on our televisions and phones and inform the child abductor that we know what kind of car he's driving so he can ditch it and the authorities.)

The audacity of terrorist attacks demands audacious countermeasures. Anyone who's got a problem with the government monitoring their communication has something more to hide than an illicit affair or a porn addiction, and the government needs to know what it is. The rest of us should quit whining and be grateful that there's an intelligence gathering apparatus in place that may one day save our lives. (Or, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) put it, everyone "should just calm down".) Frankly, I'd much rather have my phone tapped than be blown up.


  1. You have a point, but consider this. There have been times the government has abused its power and used information it knows about its citizens against them.

    The best known until now was the Hollywood blacklist. Our government destroyed entire careers based on hearsay or things people had done in their youth because the government and American people were afraid of Communist.

    Should we have ever had something called the House Un-American Activities Committee? Should have the NSA now?

    They both started with good goals in mind, but the ability to abuse and twist their power is there. Get the wrong person in charge and you'll end up with another Hollywood Blacklist situation or worse.

    1. I see your point, too @Michelle. But any government intelligence or law-keeping agency has the potential to abuse its power. From corrupt local police to Homeland Security agents who profile U.S. citizens.

      I do think government agencies need oversight, I'm just sure from whom. I don't know if the House Un-American Activities Committee was ever a good thing. But if it was at one time, having it led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy ruined all that.

      I have a certain amount of faith in our government when it comes to trying to protect us. If the occasional agent or official or bureaucrat gets overzealous, that's a price I"m willing to pay.

      Bottom line it that terrorists have f*cked up our lives and now we have to decide how to live with that.

  2. I don't care if they listen to me or read my mail, and I don't want to know everything they're doing. What I do want is to know that there are checks in place to make sure abuse isn't happening. Michelle has a good point. We don't want a repeat of the past. Just assure me that they aren't going to start manufacturing problems where there aren't any. What I mean by that is, don't come storming into my house accusing me of being a terrorist because I made a joke in a blog post or an email or a phone conversation. It could happen if there aren't controls in place.

    You're right. We need them checking. But what we don't need is a zealot deciding there are sleeper cells out there where none exist.

    1. That's exactly where I stand, @Grey. I believe the vast majority of the intelligence has our safety at heart. Hopefully we'll learn from past indiscretions and not let witch hunts break out everywhere that end up persecuting innocent people in the interests of "national security".

      Slippery slope...

  3. Listen to my stuff, ready my stuff, do what you want. I don't care. I don't have anything to hide. What I don't want to see happen is that they take random information they've picked up from somebody and decide that person needs to be taken in, interrogated, imprisoned, or something else falsely. It would be so easy for this to happen.

    Say I'm doing a research paper or writing a book about something that requires me to look into various subjects that add up to something questionable. The government red flags me and suddenly I'm the watch list at the very least or I'm hauled in somewhere and detained while they search my house and computers. Oversight of them has to happen.

    As long as somebody is watching them while they're watching me, I'm OK with it.

    1. Hear, hear @Ally Cat! Peep all you want. Just don't let some junior analyst raise a red flag because she or he took something out of context and decided to sic the terrorist police on me.

  4. I think there is too much room for abuse and I don't want them listening in to my conversations or reading my email. The need to be held accountable for what they do. If we don't demand accountability, then who's to say the next step isn't arresting innocent people and jailing them because they decided someone was a terrorist or had the potential to be a terrorist. This is a nation of freedom. I don't want that taken away from me. Yes I want to be safe, but not at the cost of my rights as a person.

    1. Yup, there's a ton of room for abuse, @Sarah. Some of it actually already happened after 9/11 at Guantanemo Bay. But if the alternative is to maintain people's privacy as we did before 9/11, we're begging for another attack. I'd rather give up my privacy than my life.

  5. think they want to know "everything" just to catch terrorists? I would not be so sure about that.
    For now, they say it is terrorists.
    Tomorrow it might be people not paying their taxes.

    Day after it is people who MIGHT not be paying their taxes.

    Like it has been said, everything you can use, you can mis-use too.
    If whoever wants to know something, they have the means to listen into my stuff, no matter if they are legally entitled or not.
    I am afraid it does not matter if i say yes or no.

    In the end - forgive me for being pessimistic - it just means to be able to get hold of people who are annoying for some reason.
    annoying some institution, group, government: whoever is in charge and has enough power.
    People who can cause trouble.And this does not necessarily mean, trouble in the sense of lawbreakers.

    1. Wow! That's a bit dystopian, @sorei! The government doesn't need the pretense of fighting terrorism to decide to eavesdrop on its citizens for whatever reason it wants. The tools exist for the government to surveil anybody they want, any time they want. (And they may already be doing it.) But as long as I don't hear anything about widespread abuse of power, I'm still willing to let Uncle Sam read my email.

  6. I can see everybody's concern, but I agree with Steven. The need to keep people safe is huge. I'd rather take the inconvenience than die in a terrorist attack. And as for misuse and abuse, well, that's something that can happen with anything. Can't it? If I have a choice, give me the NSA spying on us to keep us safe, rather than another 9/11.

    1. Exactly, @Adam! (You also managed to say what I've been trying to say, but you said it in a lot fewer words.)

  7. i can understand both your and stevens point of view, Adam. The US does not have that much experience with terrorist attacks. We over here in europe have a different history when it comes to that.

    I am afraid what you will get is the feeling of safety much rather than actual safety.

    And of course you are right, Adam, everything can be mis-used.
    It is just, in this case the people who can mis-use mostly have the means to do it GOOD on a constant basis.

    1. Unless I became a high-ranking member of the government or intelligence community, the only thing I can count on is a FEELING of safety since there's no way for me to know how safe I really am. But that's what faith in our government is all about, isn't it? A belief that it is ultimately looking out for our safety? We have to have faith since we rarely have proof.

  8. I understand your point of view Steven, and I even agree with it to an extent. What you didn't address was if they should have free reign to do what they "believe" they need to do, or if you feel they should have some accountability to the public. Maybe we don't need to know all the details of exactly what they're doing, but I want to know that some little future Hitler can't just decide he's going to target people and begin harassing them. Sorei is right about the fact that today it's terrorist, but tomorrow it could be people who don't pay their taxes, and the next day it's people "might" not pay their taxes. Where would it end?

    Public accountability isn't a bad thing. It keeps our government from doing things it shouldn't, hopefully. No, we shouldn't tell the world all our secrets, but we also shouldn't allow a group of people to act in secret behind closed doors and do what "they" think is best for our country. They might decide all blacks are evil, or all Jews must be rounded up, or all women should be lobotomized. That's the danger of "secret" government groups.

    1. Accountability, for sure, @Kirani. But I'm still not sure who the intelligence people should be accountable to. Maybe it doesn't really matter as long as their accountable to somebody. Somebody public.

      This whole discussion – my blog post and everyone's comments – is exactly what the terrorists want to happen. Now we're not just paranoid about them, we're paranoid about our own government trying to protect us. It could get to a point where we don't trust anybody. That pisses me off.


    2. there are different forms and depths of trust, Stephen.
      I can trust "my" government, but that does not mean the kind of trust I have in my husband.
      What you call paranoia, I call "uneasy thinking". "Our" governments will always try to protect us, up to a certain point, I guess.
      And I respect your position.
      It is just not mine.
      For me, it is more of a dialectic problem: actually we cannot trust anyone (not even ourselves) and we need to have that ability to question things. Even the ones we consider granted, maybe specially those.
      Ont he other hand, we need the ability trust TOO. So we need to both trust and sort of dis-trust in a delicate balance.

    3. ok, more:...actually you do get killed that easily, and whatever government does to "protect", does not automatically work the way they think it will...or the way you think it will. Europe has a history with terrorism. Germans history...well. It did teach ME not to just trust.
      Actually trying to protect someone from someone else, and fighting someone, can mean you turn exactly into what you are fighting against.
      this goes individually as well as with groups or institutions ..or governments.
      almost all of these started meaning well, kind of.
      on the basis that you cannot trust, i do trust despite that, within limits :D

    4. Well, we could get into a whole debate about the nature of Trust and good vs evil. Holy cow! I just paused for a second after typing that first sentence and realized what a can of worms you opened up, @sorei! Good and evil are two sides of the same coin, and trust is shoved somewhere in the middle of them both. Most "evil" people didn't think they were doing evil. They weren't the mustache-twirling villains in bad movies. They were idealists who thought they were helping. Same thing with good people. "The best of intentions...".

      STILL -- I believe life would be monumentally difficult if we tossed faith aside in favor of quantifiable analysis of, well, everything. It boggles my mind to think of what it would be like to question everything. A healthy dose of skepticism is good for the soul, but abject paranoia darkens the soul.

      I'm joyful to trust my wife Christy. She hasn't really given me any specific, quantifiable reason to trust her, but I do just the same, implicitly. My government has given me pause over the years. But any ginormous bureaucracy will from time to time. I just have faith that, overall, the good outweighs the bad.

      This Syria business may be another cause for pause...

  9. @Kirani
    i agree.
    it is just, I do not think there is a way for us to hold someone accountable. Inofficially, we are way past that.

    ...adding to that, steven, you say you have nothing to hide.
    never forget, if something you maybe once said or wrote, out of context, suits the purposes of some person or group, you all of a sudden will maybe find yourself in a situation that you never in your wildest dreams imagined.
    we all have something to hide, if needed, things can be .... interpreted.
    all depending on what someone suspects (if that someone has means and power.
    Think of polls. depending on what the person who develpos the poll thinks, the outcome is predictable.
    Think of McCarthy.
    you have nothing to hide? you might have the wrong star sign. the wrong gender. the wrong profession or the wrong way of thinking....
    the terrorist-thing is just one issue that comes in handy.
    forgive my cynism.

  10. Someone posted a comment about this blog post on my Facebook page because he wasn't able to post it here (iPhone glitch), so I'm posting it here on his behalf. And I'll follow up with replies to the comments you guys have posted here tomorrow when it's not so late!

    Here's Carl's comment:
    It is our business to know that government is reading our emails. Some of us are business folks with sensitive contracts and legal conversations with client confidentiality. If I wanted to pay someone one to read my correspondence, I'd pay an attorney, not a govt bureaucrat. That way I'd at least get service for my money. The govt did not stop ANY of the terrorist plots. None. Why should we be forced to pay for incompetence? Citizens stopped the forth plane. Citizens stopped the underwater and shoe bomber.

    Texas was not attacked on 11 sept, neither was Florida, Ohio, Washington state, Hawaii, Alaska, or Maine. Two office buildings (housing large banking institutions), the pentagon (govt military hq) and possibly the White House (again a govt building) were attacked. Why should the citizens lose privacy and freedom? I am not a criminal. I resent being treated like one.
    Tyranny is the result. Inocent people die under tyranny. That's why we should all care.

    1. ...."...And I'll follow up with replies..."

  11. Wow! I didn't realize so much time had passed since I posted this and you all responded. (Thanks for the reminder, @sorei.)