Can’t have it both ways

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

A whistleblower, recently. 

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.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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10 Responses to Can’t have it both ways

  1. jane says:

    “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 what if they mistakenly think you do have evil intentions? Given their biases they will make such mistakes

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I agree that mistakes will inevitably be made. In such a case, they will have to pore over my very boring emails and phone calls until they realize, hopefully sooner rather than later, that I’m just another average person.

      • aeon says:

        I know a comments column is not the right place for a debate, so I just leave some points for your consideration.

        1) I expect you know about Kafka’s ‘Process’. You think they would realize that you are just an average person. I think they probably would not. You are most probably not even allowed to find out who “they” are. Probably,”they” wouldn’t even know which instance of “they” made the decision, based on which facts or statistics, to put you to one of the lists.

        2) There will be errors, I agree on that. In case of the death sentence, you seem a little reluctant to accept that mistakes are (inevitably) made. I wonder why you then accept an (unspecified) error rate for the hypothesis that you are a terrorist. Or a pedophile. Or a tax dodger.

        Probably, if you think about the amount of data, and about the daily statistics you probably do crunch yourself (or have crunched, at some point), you know how ambiguous the outcomes can be, and how important the choice of the right statistical method can be. Therefore, the dragnet approach that some of the major newspapers and magazines around the world chose to publish does not sound like a good idea, from my perspective.

        3) Until the (ongoing) publication of NSA / GCHQ / five eyes mass surveillance, literally everybody who warned about the technical ability of mass surveillance was considered a nutter.
        Now, we know its actually implemented. For the majority of people, it makes life just a little uncomfortable to know this. Now, we can be sure not only Google knows what you are looking for on the web, and Amazon knows what you’ve been shopping for, but there is a relational database which can relate this, your activityies on twitter, facebook, your emails (including the content), your phone calls (including your geolocation), your social security number, your credit card movements, your car ID plate, your insurances and so on. There’s no end to that list, as more and more actions of our daily lives migrate to networks.

        If you train your technical awareness, this is rather creepy.
        And it’s probably changing our behavior.

        4) Mass surveillance and hacking techniques are not only used to prevent terrorism, but also (and actively) to influence politics (UNFCC COP15, G20 London, Belgacom).

        I could continue the list, but this post is already to long, and my lunch break is over.

        I don’t ask you to change your position and to accept mine. But I hope you see that some of my concerns might be valid.

        • Steve Caplan says:


          A comments column is a fine place for a debate, and thank you for spending your lunch time to make some important points. Likewise, I’ll try to respond over my lunch.

          1) Based on the history of persecuting people with different views (McCarthyism, for example), I am not insensitive to the fear of having unknown governmental agencies compile “lists” of people. At the same time, as mass terror attacks in the US, UK, Spain and other countries have demonstrated, there is a need to defend innocent lives. Clearly there need to be the right checks and balances, but at the same time, it’s obviously not possible to be as respectful of individual privacy rights as we might all prefer.

          2) With regards to the death penalty – perhaps I did not explain myself properly (the polite way of expressing oneself when misunderstood): I am 100% against the death penalty – not reluctant at all to admit the plethora of errors that have occurred and continue to occur. As for the ‘cast-a-wide-net approach–‘ lives are the only thing that cannot be reversed. I would rather have innocents checked at airport security, or if necessary by surveillance–than casualties and orphans. Pull me out of the line and rip apart my suitcase. Check my emails and calls. Do what you will. But don’t let the guy behind me get on a plane if he intends to kill all the passengers.

          3) As I noted above–it’s a case of getting used to a new and unfortunate reality. In some countries, you can’t enter any public building without going through a metal detector and being hand searched. In many western countries, this is only true for court rooms and perhaps the Smithsonian museums in Washington DC. Sad, but perhaps necessary.

          4) Unfortunately, as Watergate demonstrated, one doesn’t need super-advanced technology to try to influence politics. As noted above, the appropriate checks and balances need to be implemented to prevent that.

  2. Laurence Cox says:

    I think we all agree that we want to stop terrorists, but this issue goes rather wider than that. It comes down to whether we can trust our intelligence agencies to operate within the laws of our countries. The foreign leaders have their own spy agencies, so they should be aware, but I am talking about ordinary people here. Suppose (and this is a gross over-simplification) you are always allowed to spy on foreign nationals in your country, but you have to have an authorisation from the Justice Department for each case to spy on US citizens. So, if you are NSA and you know that there are bad people out there amongst your citizens but you lack evidence for the authorization, you chuck the data over to your friends at GCHQ ( who can do this legally under the UK law, because we are now talking about foreign citizens in a foreign country to them) and who can give you the evidence you need for your authorization. Similarly, they can do the same in the opposite direction.

    Now, analysing all this data costs money and if you were to find that NSA was subsidising GCHQ; it might turn up in the accounts as a joint project where most of the money came from NSA, but most of the work was done at GCHQ; you might be very suspicious.

    I also think that Snowden did harm as well as (some) good because once he put the information out on the internet even though it is hidden and encrypted, it is certain that sooner or later someone will find it and decrypt it – we don’t know for example what the Russians insisted on when they gave Snowden asylum – and then they will have access to far more sensitive NSA documents than they could ever hope to acquire otherwise.

    • Steve Caplan says:


      I agree with your example about misusing authority. I don’t disagree that there are those in the agencies who will illegally try to take advantage of things, and this needs to be prevented.

      What I can say unreservedly is that Mr. Snowden’s situation is nothing if not ironic. Had he grown up in Russia and tried to publicize activities carried out by the Russian security services, my suspicion is that he would have simply disappeared off the face of the earth, never to be heard from again.

      • Oliver Milne says:

        You’re absolutely right that Snowden would be vanished if he’d done what he did in Russia. The thing is, had he not fled the country before making his leaks, more or less the same would have happened to him in the US too. (Probably with fewer beatings, but then again I don’t fancy his chances being a ‘traitor’ in a US prison.) That’s not a comfortable symmetry.

        You’re also absolutely right that terrorist atrocities are horrible. But to leap from ‘this is horrible’ to ‘we must do whatever we can to stop it’ is a terrible argument. It sounds callous, but you have to look at the statistics. Many times more people die on the roads in the US each year than died in 9/11, yet does the government ban private cars in urban areas? No. It would save lives, but they don’t, because in the judgement of the people and government the freedom to drive your car if you like is worth the extra thousands of maimings and premature deaths per annum. A similarly dispassionate assessment must be made of the costs of allowing a bunch of unaccountable national-security spooks the right to know everything about everyone versus the costs of not preventing some terrorist attacks. (And not even an appreciable number at that – see for example)

        Another thing you may or may not have fully grasped is that people of my generation and younger (I’m 24) have lived our whole lives on the internet. Every mistake, every misguided youthful enthusiasm, every whimsical or seething late-night Google search marks us indelibly and will be used to judge us for decades to come. And God help you if you just so happen to fall into the wrong confluence of boxes. With a pile of data the size of the Five Eyes’, there will be an incredible number of false positives for every genuine terrorist. How can we hope to live freely in our natural electronic medium if we’re constantly looking over our shoulders, trying to make sure we don’t look a little bit funny in the eyes of whatever opaque algorithm is filing our every move?

        Lastly, I think it’s ill-advised to compare security scanners in public buildings with this kind of surveillance. A museum metal detector preserves your anonymity. Unless you’re carrying a bag full of dildos or something, there’s nothing in that process to pick you out of the crowd or give you any reason to fear. Your anonymity (and hence your freedom) is preserved and your safety is enhanced, assuming the security checks are genuine and not just the sort of security theatre practised by the TSA.

        Internet and telecoms surveillance, on the other hand, captures your truest image in your most private moments – what secrets haven’t you shared, however obliquely, with Google’s little search bar at one time or another? – and retains it for as long as possible, with no guarantee that it won’t one day be used against you. Ask yourself this: what would a Nixon or a McCarthy do with the astonishing apparatus of the NSA? Can you foresee what America, Britain, and the West in general will be like in, say, 2050? I can’t. But I won’t be that much older then than you are now. And I don’t want to leave the sort of hostages to fortune that the Five Eyes’ intelligence programs force me to.

        • Steve Caplan says:

          “It sounds callous, but you have to look at the statistics. Many times more people die on the roads in the US each year than died in 9/11, yet does the government ban private cars in urban areas?”

          I’m afraid that this analogy simply doesn’t work. Terror is not like accidental death, and its impact differs greatly from road accidents, death due to obesity, ill health and lack of exercise.

          Having been exposed to terrorism on a weekly scale for a good part of my life, and having been in DC during 9-11 and the anthrax attacks, I can tell you that terror paralyzes life as we know it today. All of the freedoms and privileges that we enjoy today in the US (surveillance and all) would be meaningless in a society where you worry about getting on the next bus or subway. Just look at life in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon and Israel.

          As for the article you cite about the non-profit group study – I cannot comment on the actual report, because I’d have to read it carefully (not just the Washington Post piece about it). But even within the very article you bring forth, there is the following comment:

          “In an opinion piece published after the release of the review group’s report, Michael Morell, a former acting CIA director and a member of the panel, said the program “needs to be successful only once to be invaluable.”

          I heartily agree with that.

          As for your comment that:

          “Every mistake, every misguided youthful enthusiasm, every whimsical or seething late-night Google search marks us indelibly and will be used to judge us for decades to come.”

          To me that sounds almost paranoid. Do you really believe that law enforcement agents, searching through thousands (?), tens of thousands (?), hundreds of thousands (?), millions(?) of websites and links are going to have time and interest to sequester and store whatever personal little secrets you might have? Sure, I admit it’s theoretically possible, but it’s far more likely that someone who actually wants to do you a bad turn will hack into your accounts and cause you havoc.

          • Oliver Milne says:

            Having been exposed to terrorism on a weekly scale for a good part of my life, and having been in DC during 9-11 and the anthrax attacks, I can tell you that terror paralyzes life as we know it

            ‘… the program “needs to be successful only once to be invaluable.”’

            Your conclusion doesn’t follow from your premises. Yes, if you’re living in fear of terrorism because it happens every week because you live in Israel, mass surveillance, if it makes a significant dent in the number of terror attacks, is justified. But to stop just one? That’s a very different scenario. In that case, the cure is worse than the disease. And that’s the case in America. Terror attacks are not ubiquitous enough in most Western countries to justify this kind of measure.

            (It’s also worth bearing in mind that both terrorists and national-security bureaucrats have an interest in making the public afraid of terrorists. The latter would like you to be slightly less scared of them – confident enough to ride the subway to work – but if you’re not scared enough, they lose funding and the power to do what they see as protecting the public.)

            Do you really believe that law enforcement agents, searching through thousands (?), tens of thousands (?), hundreds of thousands (?), millions(?) of websites and links are going to have time and interest to sequester and store whatever personal little secrets you might have?

            No, I don’t, because that’s not the way these systems work. I’ve worked as a data analyst for a company handling comparatively small (!) amounts of user data, and I can tell you that if I were the NSA, and I had all this data to sort through, of course I wouldn’t go through it by hand. Instead, I would have algorithms that search through the terabytes of data, automatically flagging up suspicious-looking people for further investigation, putting them on no-fly lists, and so on. Good luck appealing the algorithm’s decision! That’s what I mean when I say this information will be used to judge us.

            And that’s only if its use is restricted to combatting genuine terrorist threats. Do you really believe people like James Clapper – who has openly ranked journalists like Glenn Greenwald as a security threat comparable to terrorism – would scruple to use these resources to, say, access confidential lawyer-client communications, or uncover an unfriendly journalist’s sources? It is simply incorrect to assume the people in control of these programs are always or even usually people of integrity. Given the level of protection they provide, the magnitude of the actual terrorist threat, and the danger of handing the government – or Google or Facebook, for that matter – these powers, it is just not worth the risk.

          • Oliver Milne says:

            (Sorry for the double post, I had to go to a meeting.)

            I don’t think you touch on my strongest point, which is that all the information being gathered about us now, by fairly well-intentioned agencies and corporations, will have ramifications thirty, forty and fifty years down the line. We cannot predict what sort of ideologies and actors will be in power by then. Who could have predicted the rise of Islamism in 1960? Who could have predicted the Arab Spring in 1970? By allowing all this information to be gathered and stored, we are handing a comprehensive database of our lives to whoever or whatever is in power in the mid-21st century. This goes beyond the Five Eyes, in fact, to corporate data-gathering in general. And it will come back to haunt us.

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