Friday, June 21, 2013

Probably my last word on the subject....

I almost agree with Digby:

It's going to take a different consciousness among the American people or an outbreak of conscience and courage among our leaders. I honestly don't know where that leaves us.
Except I think I do know where this leaves us.

"It" in that quote is the surveillance state we find ourselves living in.  Lawrence Lessig, at the link in Digby's post, argues we need to use technology to defeat the evil abuse of technology; but to me that's like saying we just need to develop a safe no safecracker can open, a lock no lockpick can pick.

Can't be done.   Unless you put something in a box that can't be opened without destroying the contents (call it "Schrodinger's Box"), whatever you leave access to, someone will find their way to.  So there is no technological fix to this, no lock that can't be opened, no program that can't be hacked.  Do we, as Lessig said 15 years ago, accept the fact credit cards leave records and so just switch to cash?  Well, if you don't want to leave a record, what choice do you have?  Yet on-line sales have only increased since 1998, and so far as I know nobody has figured out how to transmit cash to Amazon over the intertubes.  So maybe we aren't so worried about that, after all.

We are all giving up privacy for convenience all the time.  I joke with my daughter about setting up a Facebook account so I can update my status:  "I'm sitting at the computer, waiting for something interesting to read."  "I'm sitting in the restaurant, waiting for my meal to arrive."  "I'm sitting on the toilet, waiting..."  Well, you get the idea.  I know nothing about Facebook, but I hear stories.  A few years ago the nadir of private life was Jerry Springer and people who told stories about themselves that would make Oedipus think he wasn't that badly off. Now you can bypass the TV studio and go directly to the people!  College kids who used to drink away from Mom and Dad now post photos of their drunkenness on-line, oblivious to the fact an employer in two years time might not find it so amusing, but could certainly find it enlightening.

Then again, I've never heard of anyone not getting a job because of photos of the frat parties they posted two years ago.  Not that I would hear, come to think of it.  But the things people put out for public consumption amaze me.

And there is still that stalwart majority (perhaps only 50% + 1, but still) who think they have "nothing to hide" so why shouldn't the government collect data on them, especially if it will help catch a crook?  You want to fault such thinking, but it's a hair's breadth away from the reasoning that says, for public health, you need vaccines; or for public safety, you need to evacuate your home when fires are burning.  We all have to give up something, in other words, for the good of society.  So what's a little privacy?  One man (at least) in Colorado got some air time complaining he was a prisoner in his own home. He refused to evacuate, but if he left to buy more food, the police wouldn't let him back into the neighborhood.  The idea he was endangering the lives of firefighters and rescuers who might need to pull him from that neighborhood if it caught fire, never seemed to occur to him.  He didn't want to give up his ability to move freely in and out of his house, despite the fact he'd surely demand rescue if he needed it.  And even if he didn't, do we really want a rescue operation that refuses to help certain individuals in time of need (anybody remember those homeowners who didn't pay for fire protection and lost their homes?  The fact that such practices harkened back to the 18th century didn't make anybody feel better.)

There is a legitimate distinction between public health or safety, and privacy and public safety as law enforcement.  But distinctions are something most people just aren't that good at.  Government needs to be, for that very reason; but at some point, you have to trust that government is doing its best in honoring those distinctions.  Evacuation orders are for public safety as well as the safety of "first responders" who shouldn't die because someone was stubborn, or stupid.*  Policies that limit the data government can look at are for the public good, too.

Lessig doesn't argue that we must turn off the NSA computers and let all such intelligence gathering go dark.  But we can't believe technology is the magic that will do what we mean instead of just what we say.  That's what magic is:  it does what you wanted to do, what you needed to do, even if you yourself weren't sure what you needed or how you wanted it done.  Magic always makes everything come out alright.

There is no magic here.  There are only issues of trust.  Ironically, there are only issues of faith.

Faith, and the question of whether or not all this technology is really worth the price we have to pay for it.  Aye, there's the rub; because unless a "different consciousness" means everybody everywhere going "off the grid," the information and the technology are still going to be there, and we'll still need to trust that it isn't being abused.

*almost completely off topic, but one reason I'm starting to be annoyed by the "martyr" status being accorded to the "first responders" of 9/11 is that they didn't die so other people could evacuate the towers; they died because their radios didn't work, and they didn't get the evacuation order.  It was courageous of them to go into the buildings; but their deaths were not a sacrifice, they were a failure of government policy (specifically Giuliani's).  I really don't like the idea aborning that "first responders" exist to die so we don't have to.  It's wrong, and it's wrong in the same way that saying all military personnel die to preserve our freedom is wrong.  We are rapidly developing this societal notion that others must die so we can live, or live comfortably; and it's a very disturbing idea. And I'm not sure it isn't connected to this idea that we have to give up some privacy for the convenience of modern technology and our own security.  Well, my security; if the government comes after you, you must be guilty of something.


  1. Rmj, it may not be as easy as you think to kick the habit.

  2. Funny post at Crooked Timber about NSA and not applying 4th amendment to foreigners.

    Funny because w/o a 4th amendment, what keeps those governments from domestic spying and NSA type activities?