Within our lifetimes, it will never be possible to read and listen to the communications of hundreds of millions of people. We simply don't know how to do it, and there are some goals which not even the current speed of technological development will accommodate. It took nearly half-a-millenium to go from the chaos which the printing press unleashed to mastering its capabilities to the point that a totalitarian state could be created. We master new technology quicker than ever before, but we create new technology just as quickly, and those who would foil government control will remain steps ahead of those in government who control it for a long while yet.
A few days ago, we discovered precisely what we already knew. Verizon monitors who's calling us and whom we call, and is ordered to share that information with the government so that they can use it for anti-terrorism investigations. So, in all probability, is every major phone company in the world, and we also learned definitively that internet companies do something quite similar. It doesn't mean that they have the technology or the manpower to listen in on the things we say, we're probably hundreds of years away from anyone developing that level of technological competence. Everyone from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates to former NSA chief Michael Hayden has complained that there’s simply too much data to effectively use the information they have for investigations. But when you call on a cell phone, you're using government-developed technology with satellites which the government helped to install. When you’re on the internet, you’re using a technology which until twenty-five years ago was the nearly exclusive purview of the US Department of Defense. Did we really expect that the US government would rescind those privileges for nothing in return?
What we learned is neither a good nor bad development; it's simply inevitable. And in an era when online companies can aggregate your emails to create personalized advertisements, when satellites can watch the goings on of any street corner from any vantage point on earth, when airport security can look at x-rays of your person, when credit card companies can sell your personal information to the highest bidder, this is the least of our privacy violations.
The United States of America is coming out of a pointlessly war-torn era in which an incompetent president and his nefarious handlers exploited our post-9/11 fears to create a massive security apparatus which was utterly pointless to combat terrorism. It was a 20th century authoritarian reaction to a 21st century problem. To point that out is not the same as saying that there’s no existential threat from terror, because there certainly is, it is only to point out that we overreacted gigantically. We invaded two countries, one utterly without justification. Bombings we conducted in sovereign states like Pakistan and Yemen may have been justified, but they were carried out by remote and shrouded in secrecy. But most importantly, there are 850,000 (!) people working in the United States government with top secret security clearances. What is secret from us is not that secret. It will never be possible within our lifetimes to cull information from hundreds of millions of people, but that doesn’t mean that the government won’t do its damndest to try. But it will fail every time.
Twenty-six seconds of film - that is the surveillance tape which Abraham Zapruder took of the JFK assassination. Had Zapruder left his camera at home, there would be no Kennedy assassination footage, and every sane person would agree that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole killer of John F. Kennedy. Will computer surveillance increase certainty in people’s minds about what happens, or will it provoke more doubt? Will surveillance be more beneficial evidence to the prosecution, or to the defense?
Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations.
- Aaron Swartz
Ironically, the reason that information will not be in the hands of an exclusive club is because of people like Aaron Swartz - deeply flawed, narcissistic idealists who do ballsy things which are not quite heroic, neither good nor evil, just fanatical. Julian Assange, Aaron Swartz, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden; these men (and they’re all men so far) have changed the world we live in because of a dogmatic, intellectually limited insistence upon transparency in everything which governments and corporations do. They’ve democratized knowledge, but they haven't liberalized it. They've saved us from many kinds of corporate and government malfeasance, but they’ve opened up entirely new areas for powerful people to practice exactly that. When knowledge becomes opened up, there will be whole new opportunities for advertisement. If we’re being equally paranoid about transparency as Julian Assange is to secrecy, we might infer an extreme example of the dangers of openness. Corporations will be present regardless of whether they are open or secret, and as such we may have to go back to the patronage system, for which every academic paper or artistic project or schoolbook doubles as a press release for the corporation, the government, the university, or the private benefactor, who funds it; and must include adulatory comments about the benefactors who fund their donations and defend those benefactors' most controversial actions. This is precisely what happens on wikipedia, and unpaid editors cannot compete with the onslaught of paid press people who rewrite wikipedia entries to better fit the facts which moneyed people want the world to see. Like any marketplace, it is especially within the free exchange of ideas that those with money can control. Men like Edward Snowden act as though corrupt governments or corporations would think twice about committing acts of evil in broad daylight. If these evil people have enough money, they can simply brainwash the public into thinking their evil acts never happened.
The Patriot Act had many stupid items in it. But was it really bad to let the FBI wiretap terror suspects in a manner no different than they do the Mafia and drug traffic? Was it truly wrong to require banks and security brokers to file suspicious activity reports about money laundering (especially now that they’ll have to write about themselves?)? Was it wrong to remove the firewall between the FBI and the CIA so they can pool resources and information about terror suspects?
Let’s pause on that third question for a moment. The firewall between not only the FBI and the CIA, but also between law enforcement and intelligence gathering generally, existed because of the roughshod abuses of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI: hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unauthorized wiretappings, breaking and enterings into private residences, blackmail on a massive scale, and intimidation of all kinds to anyone who questioned his authority. It had the added benefit of limiting the CIA’s involvement in “black ops”, the third world operations by which the CIA replaced governments which they viewed as ‘Soviet-friendly’ with governments more susceptible to US interests.
The raising of such a firewall in 1978 was considered a major liberal victory at the time. And yet, a quarter-century later, liberals were the first to argue for such a firewall’s destruction - seeing the ending of such a firewall as far preferable to a massive Homeland Security bureaucracy.
It’s much too late to avoid the Homeland Security bureaucracy, but the elimination of the FBI/CIA firewall was probably the wise thing to do, because nobody can possibly cull that much information. But if there is any chance at all for a government to control us after the manner of the 20th century totalitarians, it will be because the intelligence of the world’s most powerful government is pooled together by a Hoover-like figure.