If you’re someone who harbors any conspiratorial concerns about the overreach of the federal government, last week qualifies as your worst-case scenario. Or at least, the first official steps towards whatever this theoretical worst-case scenario might look like. You don’t even have to be a well-read, scholarly type to be concerned about what’s going on. Any normal citizen can see it. This is Enemy Of The State territory and it’s ghastly.
That the government hides certain info from the general public, is something that most people understand and even, tacitly, agree with. It might not sound brave and revolutionary, but the truth is, there are many things common citizens need not know. If we were given full details of every political coup, pandemic or domestic military action, it would leave us perpetually stressed. Releasing this info, especially when there’s neither a contingency plan nor a mode of action, leads to destructive panic. If, for example, an alien ship crash lands in Montana, we don’t need a “breaking news” event unless there is an immediate danger. This is where the government steps in, does its necessary diligence, and lets us know in a few weeks or months.
However, what’s currently happening now – this is different. We need to know that our personal lives are being monitored and dissected.
Via a program called PRISM, the NSA has access to phone records and the databases of several Internet companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, YouTube and others) known to collect data on US citizens. This includes everything from the contents of your emails and live chats, to even your personal search history. Let that sink in the next time you let someone borrow your laptop.
This info is collated in hopes of thwarting a terrorist attack before it has a chance to even get off the ground. For the majority of the 21st century, we have understood that this goes on. We may have fooled ourselves into thinking it was only a target program. Joke’s on us, apparently, as the reports have detailed that the program is significantly widespread. The pushback from the NSA is, of course, that citizens are overreacting.
We have, via social media, already voluntarily given up loads of our personal information. Companies, in essence, “got you” everytime you buy something online, sign up for a random newsletter or update any new software. We’re reminded that companies are stockpiling these personal moments when we see ads popping up on our computer for products we made the mistake of “liking” at 1 a.m. Sometimes we get ads for products we’ve never bought, because we fit the profile of someone likely to purchase a similar product.
We know this is happening, even if we like to imagine it’s not.
The question is: How much security do people need in exchange for their safety? There have been several potential terroristic situations thwarted (Detroit airport, Times Square in 2010) over the last several years, but the Boston Marathon bombing succeeded, and people tend to only remember the bad moments. In the immediate aftermath of that attack, the questions from pundits and citizens centered on how this was able to happen, accompanied by a search for someone to point a finger at. Not being able to have it both ways, is what bothers people here. This program, first reported by The Guardian and The Washington Post (the gentleman who leaked the info is holed up somewhere in Hong Kong, likely on the run for his life), started in 2007 and was created as somewhat of a dragnet in order to catch potential attacks before they commence. But the cost is just too high.
The unsolicited monitoring of our phone lines and email (and that’s just what we know about) is unsettling at the core level. If we save a few lives, is it worth what we give up in exchange? If you open the door to the Devil, can you really expect him not to trash your home?
If the President thought he had problems getting people in rural (and even metropolitan) areas to give up their fears of a government takeover, and thus, relent on gun ownership, well, that’s over now. Nobody is giving up their anything now. The people that have issues with Washington, and imagine the military storming their local diner, are likely really scared now. All the progress we’ve made in the last few years (or certainly since the tragedy in Connecticut) will suffer greatly.
Speaking of President Obama: Raise your hands if the last month has given you the impulse of buyer’s remorse. Even if it’s likely that Mitt Romney would have been worse, we didn’t exactly sign up for this. Though, if you pay attention to the President’s moderate leanings, it shouldn’t be a complete shock. Candidates often overpromise during their ascendant stages, or ignorant of the entire scope of developments, speak in optimistic tones about the sweeping changes they will enact once elected. Then, when they’re elected and briefed on the specifics, they have to pivot and go in a different direction. That said, this will do nothing to calm the scores of people who feel let down by the President’s leadership in this arena.
As more and more information is discovered, we may have to reevaluate what exactly the end game is. Civil liberties matter in a democracy, and finding the correct balance between protection and violation will continue to be an issue, especially as new technology makes it easer to obtain information. Some of us have always feared for these moments, others were ridiculed for their unsubstantiated paranoia. Where we are now is somewhere in the middle, with each step closer to a future we’ve only seen in the movies. We are all going to have to make some hard decisions.