What is this but the nightmare of political modernism? The constant watchers with cold, unsympathetic eyes. The men in trench coats falling in step as you leave your home. The knock on the door at three in the morning. The monster state crushing the individual, the “boot stamping on a human face forever.”
You cannot answer this with legalisms or minutiae. By pointing out that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts have been on the case since 1978, carefully overseeing all government surveillance programs, that the 1986 Electric Communications and Privacy Act (ECPA), the Patriot Act, and its supplementary legislation provided for further and even more rigorous safeguards. Or that the “concept of privacy” is “evolving” under the pressure of new technology, being “redefined” into something vaguer and more metaphysical that it was.
You can’t make those arguments because, obviously enough, the safeguards didn’t work. If they had worked, nothing like this NSA program would have ever seen the light of day. If FISA courts had any real power, if government attorneys had any serious intention of serving the interests of the public, the NSA effort would have been limited to a paper proposal, like thousands of other crazy ideas. (For their own part, the conservative elite have waltzed their way into the dunce corner all by themselves with the argument that national security trumps everything. Memo to NRO, Commentary et al — it doesn’t. It never has.)
Americans know full well what “privacy” is. They know it simply involves being left alone, particularly by those in power. They know that it does not “evolve” without turning into something else completely. Privacy is an aspect of human nature and, like marriage, parenthood, ownership of property, or self-defense, cannot be destroyed or modified by legislation or government activity. Those who attempt to do so are challenging the fountains of the vasty deep, and will be washed away in the attempt.
Involving as it does the NSA, it’s unlikely we will ever learn exactly who was behind this, who gave the orders, and what the precise purpose was. But in a way, that doesn’t matter. We know what the source is, and the rest we can guess.
I think we’re going to find out a lot more before this is over, though. We won’t have to guess.
[Update a while later]
The new Panopticon — the all-seeing eye:
The other day, my college age son quietly went around the house and put electricians tape over the camera lenses on the displays of all our home computers. I laughed when I discovered what he had done. . .then paused: after all, it wouldn’t be that hard for someone to remotely turn that camera on and secretly watch me and my family. I left the tape on.
This is what it has come to. The revelations of recent days about the NSA being able to spy on the phone calls of millions of everyday Americans, without warrant, in search of a few possible terrorists has made everyone just a little more paranoid – and a little less trusting of the benign nature of our Federal government. The reality is that we may not yet be paranoid enough.
I keep my webcam on my desktop unplugged unless I’m using it, but maybe I should tape my laptop camera. And no, I’ve never trusted Google with my data. But so many people I email with are gmail users, it probably doesn’t matter.
And then there’s this:
No doubt once again there will be a mad scramble in the Capitol to do something – new regulations, new oversight, new attempts to protect civil liberties. But, thanks to Moore’s Law, the technology will have already moved on. Is it too much to ask, just once, that Congress get ahead of this mess before all of those newly-purchased copies of 1984 turn into tour guides? The leaders of many top Silicon Valley companies have besmirched the reputations of their companies (“Do no evil” indeed) and lost the hard-earned trust of their international customers in the last few days – for what? Haul them in before a Senate committee and find out what threats the NSA and other agencies made to make these powerful billionaires give up so much.
Meanwhile, Congress, get ahead of the technology curve for once. You can start by asking about where the data goes from cellphone cameras. Then talk to the GPS folks about the ability to track the location of private phones and use their phone and tablet cameras. Query Google about the future plans for those autonomous camera cars. Get Bill Gates and ask him about what he had to give up to quiet that Microsoft anti-trust case of a decade ago. All may prove dead-ends, but who can now be sure?