Feeling aggrieved over reports of widespread government surveillance? Feeling guilty about not feeling aggrieved? Relax. There’s little you can do about the revelations.
But here are seven steps to help adjusting to a world in which the government has the ability to collect and recall your every keystroke:
1. Admit that we are powerless to stop this new technology. (We don’t have to like it.)
2. Stop confusing capabilities with actions. The U.S. government is capable of leveling Mount Rushmore. That does not mean it has any intention of launching drone attacks on South Dakota, no matter what your local tea party chapter says.
3. Recognize that this surveillance is key to national security. Former FBI Director Robert Mueller was not alone in warning that a cyberthreat will “equal or even eclipse the terrorist threat.” Other governments and bad people are racing for domination.
Whether we trust government, don’t trust government or simply want more oversight, this is serious business. It’s hard to count how many bloggers have likened the sort of information being culled today with the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s collecting nudie photos of political leaders in compromising situations. Those were relatively innocent days.
4. Appreciate that we do have safeguards. When the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court berates the NSA for violating the rules, that’s an example of checks and balances in action. China and Russia pass on such niceties as surveillance courts, and they want to do exactly what the National Security Agency does (if they don’t already).
5. Admit that commercial spying is a privacy matter, as well. Retailers follow your cellphone around the mall. Macy’s knows how much time you spent in the shoe department. Amazon.com knows all about your interest in socialism and passion for manga cartoons.
Of course, the telecom companies know whom you called and for how long. If the issue is privacy, what makes a business conglomerate more honorable than the government?
6. Call out media sources hurling thunderbolts at NSA spying while spying on you.
The New York Times recently ran a red-hot editorial railing over the agency’s “inexhaustible appetite for delving into the communications of Americans.” On the right side of the editorial’s Web page was a list of article links labeled “Recommended for You.” Now, how would The New York Times know what Froma might want to read?
A search by Ghostery, a browser extension that looks for third-party elements on Web pages, identified no fewer than 11 invisible entities tracking or analyzing the editorial’s readers. They included advertisers – DoubleClick, Google AdSense, Moat – and three companies I never heard of doing “analytics.” Naturally, the Facebook Connect widget was watching me, too.
The British newspaper The Guardian fancies itself the last bulwark against privacy oblivion. But over at the Daily Banter website, Bob Cesca reported finding 92 such Web bugs embedded on the Guardian page featuring a Glenn Greenwald post on the NSA’s alleged crimes.
7. In assessing government surveillance activities, distinguish between a “who” and an “it.” A computer is an “it.” The fact that it is ruffling through all the metadata – phone numbers, email addresses, Internet searches – or even keeping the content of such communications in a vault for five years should not overly concern us.
When an actual human being takes a look, then it’s time for questions. When the system works properly, the NSA still needs a warrant to look at content.
I hope these seven steps help. We recently learned that the NSA has cracked the encryption tools protecting the privacy of Internet communications. Two responses: 1. Now we know it can be done. 2. Better us than them.
• Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence Journal editorial board. Follow her on Twitter @fromaharrop.