Outrage Barometer

by: Michael Shields

Calculating the appropriate level of outrage to the recent NSA scandal isn’t as easy as it may seem….

I am having one of those confused moments with this National Security Agency (NSA) scandal, one of those moments where the assault of information has left me not exactly sure what to think – uncertain of the exact level of outrage appropriate. Initially, I was fuming. I could be found storming around my apartment, cursing at the television and vowing to disassociate myself from the “worst civil liberties administration of ALL TIME!” How could they be doing this? I was fired up. Demanding answers I hit the Internet to make some sense of the scandal. I had to know how bad this genuinely was, as on the surface it reeked something awful.

It was David Simon1 that reduced my boil to a mere simmer. He, in the simple and articulate manner in which he writes and explains complex situations, made it clear that the media – which has us all whipped into a frenzy – does “not understand even the rudiments of electronic intercepts and the manner in which law enforcement actually uses such intercepts” He breaks down what he calls a “faux-scandal” by explaining that what is happening now isn’t so different than the days before the Patriot Act, and that there isn’t a hired government worker sitting with a pen and pad listening to 200 million Americans daily. He states:

“Having labored as a police reporter in the days before the Patriot Act, I can assure all there has always been a stage before the wiretap, a preliminary process involving the capture, retention and analysis of raw data. It has been so for decades now in this country. The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on which the FBI and NSA are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads from that data. But the legal and moral principles? Same old stuff.”

So, true – they aren’t listening, not all the time. Probable cause will always be necessary for the government to dig deeper. But the fact of the matter is the government is collecting a database of ALL phone calls. They have in their hands an abundance of information they surely shouldn’t have, in principle. But the reality that the government, or any business even marginally adept with informational technology, can get their hands on this sort of private information is far from the shocker the media has made it out to be. In fact, we have known this for years! There has been a quiet murmur of saltiness on this issue for some time and pretending otherwise is naïve2. I guess the real question should be: Is their any evidence of the government abusing this information? I have yet to see proof of this.

Simon’s article settled me to a point where I could finally see straight. But at the exact time I was struggling to get my head around these alleged wiretaps and phone call databases the full scope of this program known as PRISM was beginning to become clear. PRISM is a system the NSA uses to gain access to the private communications of users of nine popular Internet services3. So, to get it straight, the NSA is not just collecting a record of all of our phone calls, they are also aware of the depths of all of our Internet activity. Whoa. Blood pressure rising again. Heartbeat accelerating…..

PRISM is a 20 million dollar per year program that has essentially created an Orwellian monitoring program to keep an eye on us as we share puppy photos and discuss our mutual, and apropos, distrust of Monsanto. 20 million dollars, that could presumably better serve the public in countless other ways, is being used to monitor Americans mindlessly surf the web. This is an enormous pill to try and swallow. And what makes it all worse is that PRISM, which is clearly over the top and as intrusive as a needle in the arm, is legal under the boundless authority of the Patriot Act, a piece of legislation which was so popular merely a decade ago when we all gave away so much with the cry of “FREEDOM!”4

It is all so much to take in, with so many angles to look at if from. It is not right, not in the least bit, that so many of our civil liberties are being compromised. Over the last decade the level of invasive meddling has risen to a new plateau that is hard to stomach5. Government officials yammering home the point that “Law abiding citizens have nothing to fear” does not make the situation more palatable on any level. Yet, the level of outrage over the revelation of something that was pretty much public knowledge, and of a program that many see as a necessary evil to stop extremists poised to hurt our fellow citizens, seems slightly exaggerated. This whole conversation poises us uphill on a truly slippery slope. There are no easy answers. I am fully and utterly confused and we haven’t even mentioned the name, Edward Snowden.

Edward Snowden, as all who reside above a rock are fully aware of, is the twenty-nine-year-old former C.I.A. employee and current government contractor, who leaked news of the NSA’s PRISM program. Some are hailing him as a hero, while others are calling for his head as he seeks asylum in Hong Kong6. Once again, I am not sure.

Snowden surely must have known the deal when he signed on with the NSA. Was he unaware that the National Security Administration was neck-deep in intercepting electronic communications? Maybe he thought they were just operating outside of the United States, and not addressing any terrorist in our country or those that are “home grown”? Maybe the level of oversight he was exposed to was so much more than he anticipated, so daunting that he just had to do something, thus causing him to break his contract with the government that clearly stated that the unauthorized disclosure of classified information is a crime?

But it can be argued that his revelation of the herculean scale of the US government’s eavesdropping in America is a public service of the highest order, that far outweighs any breach of commitment to the government. Whistleblowers play an essential role in a free society. They are not all villains, often quite the opposite. Each situation where one proverbially blows a whistle must be examined individually to see if the breach of trust they committed was worth it, to evaluate if the potential harms of their revelations are real and thus the rupture of contract was indeed noble. The fact that this information is out there for all to see is good, right? I’m asking……

Big Brother is watching. This is undeniable. But what is also not up for debate is the fact that there is a legitimate threat. Thousands died in New York City in 2001, and just a few months ago 3 were killed and scores more terribly injured while simply watching a marathon. Regardless of one’s stance –or lack there of as I am one of those who is simply trying to figure it all out – it is important that we are having this national discussion. Snowden’s revelations have assuredly framed the debate over the balance between our privacy rights and the authentic need for security. If you disagree with the NSA’s overbearing reach and PRISM, if you think this has gone to far, then it is time to start demanding change (easier said than done of course). This is the only way to begin to reel this whole thing in. But, I guess it all depends on your comfort level, and how much you trust America’s covert intelligence-gathering community. It seems that in an ideal world we would know everything about what our government is doing and it wouldn’t know anything about its citizens on-goings, unless it had probable cause to believe we had committed a crime. Government can be a cruel beast, crude and susceptible to abuses7. When we give power to a government we are giving power to those who hold sway over it, which history has shown us time and again, can be a very risky endeavor.

  1. Author, Creator of the Wire and Treme []
  2. This is not a reason to not be outraged, however. Just a fact of life – and hopefully one we can do something about. []
  3. Google, Facebook, Yahoo, etc. etc. []
  4. The 4th Amendment clearly states that the government needs a valid reason for intruding upon your business. The Patriot Act nearly abolishes this right completely. What’s funny is that it seems that the far right has just realized this. []
  5. We must also understand that with the level of technology most of us utilize within our daily lives, the reality of the situation is we have been living under an illusion of supposed privacy for some time now. []
  6. Fleeing to Hong Kong appears a questionable move, yet Snowden states: “People who think I made a mistake in picking Hong Kong as a location misunderstand my intentions, I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality.” []
  7. IRS scandal, etc. []

2 Comments

  • There is no “privacy” in the digital age. The NYPD has had smart cameras on most of Manhattan for a decade. $20M for a gov’t funded intelligence project is nothing and I don’t think we understand the depth of the surveillance yet.

    On the bright side, the companies involved in providing this information to the NSA (Google, Verizon, Facebook, Yahoo) are all American and they all track your internet activity for Advertising purposes anyways. We should celebrate that the good ole US of A has a leg up in the digital arms race (see Stuxnet). Each citizen needs to be responsible for their own actions and if you don’t like the current surveillance state, delete your Facebook, use TOR, duckduckgo, Bitcoins, ghostery etc.

  • Thanks for the comment Tsandler5000. Exactly what I was speaking of when I mentioned that “we have been living under an illusion of supposed privacy for some time now.” I appreciate your positive take.

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