Aside from this one piece, I haven’t done a lot of public talking about the whole thing where the NSA ate the entire Internet and then seemed surprised that people were annoyed once it was discovered. So in the spirit of not leaving 2013 with it completely unobserved, a few thoughts.
1. First things first: I’m inclined to agree with the idea that what the NSA is doing, i.e., sucking up every bit of information possible from the online world when and wherever it can, is a gross and egregious violation of the U.S. Constitution (specifically the 4th Amendement, although I suspect there are other Constitutional issues as well), and also a really bad idea with respect to everyone else on the planet. And while in one sense you may wish to admire the chutzpah of a governmental organization that will, say, bug the cell phone of the leader of one of the US’ closest allies, apparently just because they could, out in the real world, this is how the Internet fractures and Balkanizes and the potentially greatest tool of human expression we’ve yet seen shatters into nothingness. So, yeah. Dumb across the board.
2. I am utterly unsurprised the NSA did it, for two reasons. One, the whole last decade of OH GOD OH GOD THE TERRORISTS ARE COMING FOR OUR FREEDOMS gave the NSA (and anyone else) carte blanche (it’s not for nothing the NSA’s employee talking points for Thanksgiving were heavy on playing the “9/11″ card); Two, anyone who thinks that an organization that’s given a mission to collect data unencumbered by any real oversight or public knowledge won’t in fact go as far as they possibly can in that mission doesn’t really understand either human or institutional nature. Why did the NSA do it? Because they could, because no one told them not to, and 9/11 OUR FREEDOMS THE TERRORISTS OH GOD THE TERRORISTS.
3. I’m not going to attempt to excuse Obama’s acceptance of the continuation of such a wide net of data collection, which started under Bush, but I will say that I suspect if Obama had publicly tried to reel back the data collection, we’d have seen a huge freakout on the GOP side of things, proclaiming that Obama was undermining our ability to protect ourselves 9/11 TERRORISTS DEATH OH GOD AND ALSO BENGHAZI. Please note this does not suggest that Obama was planning to rein this stuff in (I don’t see any indication of that), just that if he had, this would almost certainly have been the response. I also believe that such a response is part of the the reflexive “we hate everything Obama does” thing the GOP does; if a GOP president were to suggest reining things in, the GOP response would be more measured. Lesson: partisan politics suck, especially these days.
4. I could be wrong about this but I don’t really get the sense the US general population gives much of a crap about any of this in anything but the most abstract sense; it’s largely a concern of tech and politics nerds. I also pretty strongly believe that to the extent there is negative feeling about this sort of massive data collection, it’s paper-thin at the moment, and that pretty much all you would need to get the general population to go along with a permanent surveillance state, especially one that, generally speaking, is utterly unconcerned about them on an individual level, is another large terrorist attack. This is, as you might expect, one of the scarier things to me, on an intellectual level, about all this NSA stuff.
5. But then on a personal level I also understand why it seems the vast majority of people don’t seem to give a crap. It’s because for most people, what’s the worst that can happen? The worst that can happen is that the government knows you look at porn online. And, well, shit. Who doesn’t know that? Who among us over the age of thirteen has not used the Internet to procure pictures of hot objectified humans who tickle their particular triggers? If we just all own up to the fact we look at porn, for most of us, the spectre of Big Brother becomes less of a thing in our lives.
This is not to say the massive governmental dragnet of data isn’t a real problem. It is (please see point one). It’s to say most people probably aren’t that concerned because they know they’re actually pretty boring. And maybe these folks are even right, so long as the US government remains generally blandly unconcerned with their day to day lives. But you know, we have ample examples of the US government deciding people are enemies of the state just for doing things they have a Constitutional right to do, so it’s well within reason not to assume the US government will remain blandly unconcerned.
6. An amendment to the US Constitution that explicitly allows for a right to privacy would likely help make it clear that programs like this are not to be tolerated, but the chances of a Right to Privacy amendment passing are close to zero, since that would essentially shut the door on the long attempt at rolling back Roe V. Wade, and there’s no possible way social conservatives are ever going to let that happen.
7. The US is correctly getting blowback from the NSA’s adventures, but let’s not pretend that every country that had the ability to do this wouldn’t (or didn’t, or doesn’t) do this. Let’s also not pretend that if the NSA stopped these programs tomorrow, programs like these would continue elsewhere (hello, China!), and that ultimately that’s going to be part of the argument that the NSA (and other governmental organizations) will make — and continue making — to authorize these sorts of programs in the future.
In short: If you weren’t already assuming that everything you do online isn’t already tracked, recorded and remembered forever, and will continue to be so, you’re probably utterly naive. The real question will be if you ultimately care.