I’m not a very private person. One might even say I have no boundaries. Certainly my wife is appalled at some of the things that come out of my mouth. Those things, however, are things that I personally blab to others; they aren’t information gathered by drones (see Rand Paul’s Drone Filibuster) or by some government apparatus.
The recently publicized programs that gather massive amounts of data about our phone calls and Internet histories certainly fall into the latter category. The government insists that it only gathers “metadata,” not “actual” data. The difference is that metadata would be records of whom you called, when you called them, and how long the call lasted; they are not gathering the actual content of your phone calls. And after all, if you haven’t done anything wrong then you have nothing to hide.
That is hogwash.
I’m a little too young to remember the McCarthy era distinctly, and you might be too young to have heard of it. One of its hallmarks was the interpretation of protestations of innocence as evidence of perjury; another was guilt by association. Phrases like “Are you now or have you ever been…” and “fellow traveler” were thrown about like bile-soaked confetti. People lost their jobs because they were suspected of “Communist sympathies” on the flimsiest, or no, evidence. Companies would be threatened with boycotts for harboring suspected traitors.
All of that happened in a time when gathering massive amounts of metadata was technologically impossible; but now it is not. As anyone who’s watched a modern police procedural TV show knows, the police can (at least in fiction) glean a lot of incriminating information from a log of someone’s phone calls. That is how metadata is used, but it requires a warrant to get it. Getting a warrant requires you to convince a judge that you have a legitimate purpose and a possibility of learning something useful.
What the NSA is doing is the same thing, except that they can use a single, secret warrant to get that metadata for millions of people at once. That should immediately raise an eyebrow. How can the government possibly maintain that the phone records of millions of people are going to be useful?
That’s where the really insidious work, the data mining, comes into play. Remember that no matter how innocent you are, how little you have to hide, the government knows about every phone call you’ve made or received (and your online history, too). With data mining, they can match your actions against everybody else’s.
Did you buy a copy of the Qur’an, strictly for curiosity mind you, on E-bay? If so, do you know the seller’s political leanings?
Does the owner of an Afghani restaurant you frequent call home often?
When there were floods in Pakistan, did you donate to a relief organization? Can you account for how every penny you donated was spent?
Does your brother work with someone who has family in Yemen?
At your synagogue’s recent ecumenical service, did you hit it off with a Muslim attendee? Did you meet for coffee at Starbucks the week after? Do you know if he wires money home to his mother? Do you know where his brother is?
Right now this isn’t a big problem for most of us; but if you look back on the Red Scares of the beginning and middle of the 20th century you might wonder how many 9-11s away we are from Jihad Scares.
Propinquity alone will be enough to earn you a face to face chat with someone from Homeland Security. “None of your business” will not be an acceptable response.