Security vs. Safety
This morning during my daily news intake, I read this article on the Obama administration defending the National Security Agency (NSA) collecting the phone records of “millions of U.S. citizens.” The administration official of course spoke anonymously, and he/she only defended the practice of collecting this information–he/she didn’t confirm that it had actually been done. Being of the mind that where there’s smoke, there’s usually some kind of fire (and I witnessed one in the alley next to my house last night), I think this deserves some of my attention.
First of all, I am outraged. What happened to the Obama of the 2004 DNC that said one person or group’s rights being eschewed in the name of ‘national security’ was a threat to all of our civil liberties? Or the 2008 Obama that penned this piece on FISA? Has the audacity of hope really fallen that far?
I’m not going to pretend to understand the intense level of responsibility that presidents and their administration officials feel toward protecting our nation’s security (one hopes). Can’t even begin to comprehend it. But I do understand what it means to protect someone. And that is what’s being lost here–no one person is being protected and no one person/group is the threat. Someone’s, let’s say mine (because they could be mine), privacy has been compromised with no legal cause or due process. And that is scary. The ironic half-jokes from the early 2000s about the Patriot Act’s invasive nature must have fallen on deaf ears (gotta love that photo). The same people that were standing at podiums talking about protecting our privacy against George W. Bush and his cronies are now committing the same sins in the name of the same gods or devils: national security. From who? At this moment, I’m more afraid of the government than Al Qaeda, because let’s be honest, which is more likely to happen? I will be involved in an act of mass terrorism, or my government will invade my privacy and neglect my legal rights? Which one do we all know is more likely to happen? Exactly. (And yes, I accept that maybe the latter is more likely to happen because of actions like this one in the name of national security, but I also tend to believe if someone has the intent of hurting people, they’ll find some way to do it.)
As a friend pointed out, with people sharing so much about themselves on the internet and through social media, ‘privacy,’ is becoming a buzzword. It’s a double-edged sword because people claim to care about it, but then they’ve got their place of work, their school, maybe even their address and phone number all up on Facebook. Working at an organization where privacy is a major issue, I’ve read some great columns on managing privacy settings online, as well as the paradox of allowing a company to track and share your behavior because there is no other way to use its service. (How many of us really read those Terms and Agreement things before signing up for Facebook? Ain’t nobody got time for that.) At the same time, the organization I work for is also a strong advocate for open access to information.
As this friend smartly pointed out to me on Facebook, with so many people living out in the open and choosing to use services like Facebook or Twitter, or anything else like them, what’s the big deal about this? It’s more of a legal issue than a privacy one. And what are you doing on your phone that you’re embarrassed about the government finding (all the photos I have of nail polish and my at-home manicures)?
The answer is: It’s a big deal because nobody asked me. Maybe I give Facebook permission to share my activities on my page, but at least they ask me first. (You know it’s bad when I’m saying Facebook is doing something good about privacy.)
I agree that in this digital age, really it’s not that hard to find information out about someone (except maybe the people who have something to hide). But this is what’s bothersome, exactly as my friend pointed out, that illegal things are being done by the government in the shadows (and I’ve never really believed that they won’t continue be done that way) without any explanation to the people who are being included in it. I accept that the government knows things I will never know and does things I’ll never know about. To some extent I trust that they know what they’re doing. Now, I’m not so sure. (Hello, Congress. Why don’t we vote to defund ACORN, again?)
People sign up for social media sites and choose what to share about themselves. Honestly, in the world of Google, we probably aren’t as in control of what’s out there about us as we’d like to be, but there is a semblance that we have some control. Last I checked, the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights that the administration pushed forward is supposed to increase consumer protection on the internet. And here is the administration allegedly authorizing the collection of records of God knows how many people, with no notice to those individuals, and without any explanation of the cause. But maybe that’s the point that hurts; it’s a ruse–we only have a semblance of control over our privacy. People only let us think that way when it suits them. (Okay, I sound super paranoid now, sorry).
If someone told me my phone bill was vital to finding terrorists, I’d gladly hand it over and say, “Find those sons of bitches!” But no one has given these people that choice, and it is legally their choice. As my friend aptly pointed out, this is ultimately more of a legal issue than a, “hey, big government, get your hands off my phone records!” For me, it’s also somewhat disappointing in this administration.
No, I don’t feel Barack Obama owes me anything. Truly, aside from trying his best to get the country moving forward, I don’t feel I have unrealistic expectations, and I do think he’s trying to accomplish that. But if these allegations turn out to be true, I think for me it signals the stunning blow that I was sold a somewhat false bill of goods. I wasn’t convinced before, you know, with Gitmo still being open. I’d even convinced myself the drone strikes are an unpleasant necessity of war. The innocent people who die in the name of protecting us and our interests? Well, war has casualties. Ugh, that sounds terrible even to say. That’s how much I really, truly believed that Obama would work to change Washington. That he wouldn’t really subject our nation to the kind of moral quagmire that put us in the position we were hoping he’d get us out of. I don’t want the U.S. to continue to be seen as a bully and selfish nation by the international community, and I don’t want our war machines to be the only weapons we use for diplomacy. But more than anything, I don’t want those weapons turned on me and my fellow citizens in the name of protecting ‘national security.’ If the individual is not safe from the government, than the nation is no longer safe. Maybe the government believes these infringements make us more secure, but I don’t feel safer for it.
I’m aware that given the recent horrific events during the Boston Marathon that there is a natural tendency to look inwards for the people who may choose to enact violence. (And yet gun control in light of Sandy Hook and dozens of other events remains a pipe dream.) And I know that in times of heightened perceived threat, it sometimes becomes easy to throw civil rights to the wayside, and I know that this isn’t as big a deal (physically) as someone being illegally round up, arrested, questioned, tortured, who knows. I get it. All I wanted to share is my disappointment that we are back on the slippery slope, and my frustration with myself for thinking we were ever going to get off of it.