Over the past 8 months, I have watched with detached interest as the spectacle of the Snowden/NSA scandal unfolded and developed. As with many government-related
scandals, who is ‘scandalized’ often depends on which side of the political spectrum one sides. Often, but not always.
Since coming to the US nearly 15 years ago, I have learned that there are a lot of what I would define as “strange attitudes” to many issues. The tremendous value placed on human life and its preservation (including the debate on when life actually begins) coupled with the relative ease in people are sentenced to death. And mistakenly sentenced to death in some cases. Somewhat irreversibly.
Privacy is another issue that’s constantly receiving attention in the media. The same media who lust after every last detail of a politician or celebrity’s sex life often raise the flag of awareness about the common citizen’s privacy. It’s not that I think celebrities or politicians necessarily deserve a media blackout surrounding their personal lives – in fact they often flaunt their personal lives in public. When it suits their goals. I’m more interested in what a visitor from another planet might describe as “hypocrisy” with regards to the issue of privacy.
In the case of Snowden, and his famous release of details about the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs, I am not particularly sympathetic to his cause. Certainly I do fear an “Orwellian over-reach” that impinges on my rights as a private citizen. But I also fear terrorism. For anyone who’s witnessed first-hand the horror of mass casualties, privacy becomes a relative thing.
Prior to 9-11, would anyone in the US ever have imagined that passengers would have to remove their shoes before being allowed into the gate area for flights? That machines – apparently capable of detectable our genitals underneath our clothing – would routinely be employed at airports? I suspect not.
Privacy is a relative thing. Closed-circuit TV cameras are ubiquitous across the US – and I hear rumors that they are employed even more ubiquitously in the UK. IP addresses are recorded with every mouse click and opened website. And now we are told that the NSA is listening in to some of our phone calls, reading some of our emails. Do I care? Should I care?
First, I suspect that any NSA agent listening in to my minimal phone calls, or reading my never-ending piles of emails will likely be bored to death. I can barely keep up with the emails myself – so I doubt that the NSA could really monitor very carefully the emails of 300,000,000 Americans (not to mention leaders of foreign nations – whoops, now that is a mistake!). Unless there are a hidden 300,000,000 NSA workers. Clones, perhaps, with one assigned for each US citizen. The math just doesn’t work. So this of course leads to the conclusion that there is a great deal of selectivity in who is being monitored.
Do I trust that the selection is accurate? No. Because such selection is always statistical, based on the likelihood of a person being involved in terror, etc. So yes, certain cultures, religions and ethnic make-ups will obviously be targeted. But if I were/am on such a list, I would shrug it off and say – “I prefer that the NSA targets me so that they can see I have no evil intentions, and that they do their job conscientiously.” And that I understand (if this were the case) that they make this decision to monitor me based on the fact that others of a similar ethnic/religious background have done damage in the past. What else is there to go on?
The key issue is not the invasion of privacy per se; rather, whether the NSA is diligent enough to seek out and process information gained to prevent terror, while at the same time able to ignore and rapidly dismiss irrelevant information on honest people, and thus hone their selection process.
This is a new game – and it’s regretful that democratic countries have had to resort to to these measures. But it’s a necessary evil, and the jury is still out on how the government will strike the right balance with these measures.