Tuesday, June 11, 2013

"Government Wiretaps Civilians" Is the New "Dog Bites Man"

There's another scandal about the federal government abusing its power to conduct covert surveillance on its own citizens, this time with under catchy and innocuous-sounding acronym of "PRISM". (Sometimes I get the feeling that deep down, every single one of our government intelligence analysts grew up watching 'The Man From UNCLE' one too many times. I'm not saying we should take away their TV sets, but maybe if they got a little therapy, they'd stop acting out their spy fantasies in the seats of government.)

There's a peculiar dichotomy going on right now. On the one hand, the same exact people who insisted Bush was our Glorious Leader and that we needed to be able to spy on innocent civilians to catch the terrorists in our midst that Jack Bauer had missed are now freaking out, because Obama's use of the exact same domestic surveillance in the exact same manner is the first step in the Coming of the Black Helicopters. On the other hand, you have a bunch of left-wing apologists saying that this abuse isn't nearly as bad as Bush's abuse, because it's being carried out by someone competent and intelligent so there's probably a good reason for it this time that we just don't know about. In addition, you also have some left-wingers who are SHOCKED! that Obama, the Second Coming of FDR, turns out to be perfectly willing to abuse government power when it's handed to him. I'd say there are also some right-wingers out there who are glad Obama is finally getting tough with terrorists, but let's just admit it, the neocons are so far gone these days they can't even admit that he got bin Laden and Khadaffi.

Whereas the actual fact is, the abuse is at this point institutional, just like pretty much everyone who was paying attention said it would be back when these things were being hashed out the first time, well over a decade ago at this point. Obama is neither a demonic monster nor a wise and benevolent patriarch; he's just a guy with access to power that really shouldn't be handed out. (And let's face it, probably most of the really bad abuse is done down at the grunt end anyway. People think in terms of power-mad dictators, but there's nothing quite so bad for invasion of privacy as a bored techie who can look at your Facebook account.)

(...um, yeah, it's probably worth mentioning at this point that there are already plenty of bored techies who can look at your Facebook account without the government getting involved. Privacy online really is just an illusion we sell ourselves so that we don't get skeeved out while looking at porn.)

The point is, getting shocked and outraged at Obama, like some people are, or defending him like other people are, isn't worth doing. It doesn't matter who you put in the Oval Office. These powers will be abused because they are broken, not because the people who are abusing them are bad. The remedy is to limit the power, not to find better people. Because I do still believe that Obama is a good man and a good President. Heck, I believe I'm a good man and I like to think I'd make a good President, but give me unlimited surveillance capability over the entire United States and I'd probably come up with some pretty good rationalizations for why I should use it, too. It's just not a tool we should allow people to have, that's all.

Or, alternatively, we should allow them to have it. So long as we can see everything they do on the Internet too. After all, fair's fair.


magidin said...

It's really about scale, I think. The kind of "metadata mining" was done before, with less technology; the creator of "The Wire" had a piece describing how Baltimore police had done it with payphones, getting a court warrant to obtain metadata from payphones in order to try to determine the pager numbers that drug dealers were using. Then they used the metadata to get warrants for phone calls to those numbers, and so on.

The other one thing causing angst is that companies like google and Facebook are not protecting privacy of users... which, like Captain Renault, we should be shocked, shocked, shocked to find out.

Anonymous said...

...Yeah, when I look at the data the government has apparently been collecting on us, and at the way people are seriously losing their shit over it, I can't help but think, "Wait...there are, like, at least ten corporations that have way more invasive data mining on me and everyone else right now. Didn't you all know that? Why is it only bad when it's the government?"