Because it’s there

I have enjoyed the wailing and gnashing of teeth (ashes and rent garments to come?) over the recent “revelation” that the NSA was “spying” on US citizens. The government – the GOVERNMENT – was spying on its own citizens (and presumably non-citizens?). Forsooth. What is this world coming to? Ask Angela Merkel (she grew up under the STASI); apparently, the present incumbent of the White House did not care for her inference.

This, after decades of rushing to provide personal information to thousands of strangers via so-called “social networking”. Isn’t this just a little bit of closing the gate after the horse disappears over the horizon?

Who hasn’t bought a house? What do you think is on all those pounds of paper that you rush to initial while the sun is still shining? (That is not supposed to be a trick question.) What about credit cards? Why do you think one credit card in your wallet seems to spawn solicitations for thousands more in your mailbox? There are three – not one – credit reporting agencies that somehow gather and value different information about you. Then compute a cryptic number (ok, a unique number from each agency) that tells them something about me (reading my palm might be better). I never thought I was that interesting. How do all those vinyl-siding salesmen get my phone number, anyway?

And you’re worried about the government? At least “the government” has a face. At least the guy on top has a name (I mean, the guy in the White House; I have no idea who is supposed to be in charge of the NSA). Why is it we laud the efforts of private enterprise to collect, mine, dredge-up trivia about us, but when the government does the same thing, we cry foul? At least the government says it is there to “serve and protect” us – I’ve never heard a bank say that. Ok, so financial institutions are more honest than the government (have we forgotten the “Global Financial Crisis of 2008 already?).

Anyway, as to the question of why the government does it, well, that is truly a no-brainer. George Mallory answered that question back when he attempted Mt Everest. People are arguing about the government violating laws that may, or may not exist in order to protect us from terrorists – with over 27,000 laws on the books (apparently) who’s to say? People wonder at how detailed the information is: just phone numbers, or entire conversations? And on, and on, and on….

Frankly, the government can have my phone. For starters, I hate the phone. Secondly, I only ever call my mother. And third, my provider established and maintains the gold standard for the world’s worst customer service. Where’s Henny Youngman when you need him? Don’t get me started on “automatic license plate readers” (we’re talking about MILLIONS of pieces of “geo-located information” per month). And, you did know that another name for “cell phone” is “tracking device,” didn’t you?

A better question is this: does data collection by the government make you think of Kafka or Orwell? We can thank Daniel Solove for this suggestion in his essay “Why Privacy Matters Even if you Have ‘Nothing to Hide’. With millions of surveillance cameras (sometimes I think that is per building, instead of per city, or country), the data has already been collected for years and years. Technology has provided the means to collect it; government – and private enterprise – have just stepped in to take advantage of it (or, should I say “created a market” for it?). The better question is not what are they going to do with these mountains of bits or bytes, but how will it come to bite me in the ass? So, yes: I vote for “The Trial”; “1984” has come and gone.

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