I was thinking about holding off on this until tomorrow, but it’s been rattling around in my head for a while now and really wants an outlet, so I decided to write a couple of posts in an attempt to get it all out. Tune back in tomorrow for more thinking.
So, everyone knows about the controversy over the spate of whistleblowers we’ve been hearing about lately; Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange. Facebook has been lit up with articles and memes about the most recent outing of information, and I keep coming across three in particular (which have been what’s inspiring my thinking). Since they all ask very different questions, let’s take them one at a time.
This is, I think, the one that’s gotten the most air time:
This may make me a bad liberal, but I am very, very conflicted about the idea that we should be able to expect complete sanctity where our privacy is concerned. Honestly; I can’t remember a time – in my entire life – when someone, somewhere, didn’t have some sort of personal information about me. Every school I ever attended had/has my birth date and immunization records (not to mention records of every class I ever took and the resulting grades from those courses). The DMV has all kinds of information about me, up to and including my height, weight, and blood type. All of my doctors have my social security number and the results of every medical test I’ve ever taken and every medication I’ve ever been prescribed. The advent of the internet (and my extensive use of blogs and other social media) means that my electronic fingerprint is all over the fucking place, from my purchases with online retailers (and the online presence of brick-and-mortar stores) to donations I’ve made to the Red Cross and Donors Choose, to surveys I’ve taken and petitions I’ve signed. Data mining means that I get advertisements targeted at me based on the websites I visit (and maybe even the key words I use), and only the astronomically savvy know how to obscure their identity enough to foil all of the programs in place to collect all this information.
Phone companies have always kept logs of transactions between numbers; always. I remember seeing a phone bill way back in the 70′s (my paternal unit was waving it around angrily at the maternal unit who, apparently, had been making extended long distance calls without heed to the cost). Each month, an itemized bill would come in the mail, listing every call made from the number being billed, along with the duration of the call. This is not new information that suddenly popped up with the advent of cell phones; it’s been the case that calls are itemized for as long as I can remember.
I completely understand the anxiety that comes from powerful entities having too much access to people’s personal information (I’m a Holocaust scholar, for crying out loud; I get that atrocities start small – the retraction of little, “inconsequential” rights that eventually led to the ovens). In fact, I was teaching freshmen in high school about the Holocaust when word leaked of Bush’s warrantless wiretapping scandal. A student had asked how the Holocaust could possibly have happened, and I answered “little by little; take away this one little right that only affects a small part of the population, then move on from there.” My kid answered with, “good thing that can’t happen anymore,” to which I replied, “really? Heard the news about the wiretapping?” “If you don’t have anything to hide, what’s the big deal?” another kid piped up, “The government can listen to my phone calls all day if they want; they’re not going to hear anything bad.” “Yeah?” says I. “Go watch Enemy of the State and get back to me on that.”
I am not comfortable with anyone – especially someone in power – having unfettered access to every facet of my life. I LIKE that law enforcement should have to go through channels to obtain records of my interactions, and that they have to provide compelling evidence that I’ve done something wrong before they can have information about my phone use or my computer transactions or get access to data from my EZ pass – and don’t even get me STARTED about my DNA (though I also wish that we didn’t appoint judges for life terms, and that there were periodic reviews of procedures by an independent body or spot checks and oversight on the decisions that get made by said judges, but one thing at a time, I suppose). I railed against the so-called Patriot Act when it was first forwarded, and again when it was renewed (permanently, which really burned my biscuits) back in 2005. I’ve seen enough espionage films to know that data can be manipulated, misinterpreted, or outright fabricated, and by anyone with an interest in doing so.
At the same time, though, I’m trying to look at this latest outrage with some perspective. I am not so frightened of my government that I think that it has anywhere NEAR the capacity to analyze the incredible amounts of data that I understand have been collected (seriously; spend an afternoon at the DMV or the employment offices – not to mention the VA – and then tell me how efficient the government is).
I also recognize that we live in very dangerous times. The global political, educational, and economic policies have created tensions unlike we’ve ever experienced before. Add to that the volatility of religious extremism (which, I believe, is really just a way for smart, power-hungry people to manipulate those less intelligent or aware than they) and we’ve got some pretty untenable situations – uncompromising terrorists (not to mention uncompromising politicians), businessmen and politicians conspiring to rape the economy and disenfranchise the rest of us, peaceful popular uprisings met with brutal and unwarranted force, poverty, despair, and hopelessness (the most dangerous man in the world is the man who believes he has nothing to lose).
I do not begin to assume that I understand what’s required to make our country even reasonably safe. I have no idea what kinds of threats are presented every day around the world – the vulnerability of transportation systems, open marketplaces, the food or water or medical supply – but I’m sure that the people whose job it is to try to discover and disable plots to attack the general population (wherever that population is – here or abroad) need information in order to do their work. Do they need MY information? No, they don’t; there’s nothing about any of my activities that would indicate that anything I do or say or have would be helpful in any kind of investigation, domestic or otherwise. The question then becomes, though; how do they decide whose information they DO need?
Two months ago, a bomb went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I understand that CCTV systems (another thing privacy advocates absolutely hate) and access to phone records were important tools in helping find the bombers (and their associates). The public were unrelenting; they wanted law enforcement to find the culprits NOW, damn it (in fact, there was a general outcry that they hadn’t been stopped before the bombs went off). We can’t have it both ways, though; we can’t expect to have absolute security AND absolute privacy. We can’t expect law enforcement (or any other authority) to prevent crimes (or solve them in the one-hour Law and Order episode fashion we’ve come to demand) while at the same time insisting that they be denied access to our records.
The short answer is that I’m terribly conflicted about all of this. As an American who loves the unprecedented freedom I enjoy, I’m not eager to give up my rights – even just a little – because I’m also a scholar of history and I understand that rights have to be guarded with a kind of jealous vigilance afforded to little else. At the same time, though, I want to support law enforcement in their efforts to keep us all as safe as possible in our current environment. I want to be safe in the grocery store. I want my children to be safe in their schools. I want everyone who boards a bus or a train or an airplane to arrive safely at their destination. I’m willing to undergo background checks and fingerprinting to work in schools. I’m willing to submit to metal detectors and bag searches in government buildings. I’m willing to take off my shoes in airports.
I respect the people who are sounding the general alarm about all that’s happening now. At the same time, though, I know that there has to be some willingness on the part of the public to tolerate some inconveniences in the name of the greater good.
I’m just not sure where the line is.