Which is not to say that corporations’ use of our personal information is not invasive. But it is less of an affront because we know it’s happening, assist in the data-collection process, have some recourse if policies change, and are limited in our vulnerability — at least companies can’t lock us up!
Government data-mining, by contrast, is secret — until it’s revealed by leakers who face prosecution for telling the truth. And the government’s power is sweeping, including literal deprivation of freedom, or even life itself, through prosecution and punishment. Public outcry can only change things when we know what’s happening — but too often officials hide behind the concept of classified information, even when they’re involving corporations in the info-vacuum. And the so-called “public servants” are bought and paid for by special interests that conflict with our own.
Beyond being deprived of the information we need to make good decisions about our government’s actions, we can’t even fight back against telecom firms, which are forced to comply and protected from repercussions. A June 11 Huffington Post report details the millions of dollars spent by AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint from 2002 to 2012, including a combined $55 million on lobbying relating to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. And sure enough, the companies have gotten federal legislation enacted that gives them total retroactive legal immunity from civil lawsuits related to their participation in government surveillance programs. The immunity has been attacked, but repeal efforts have failed.
Having a public conversation
It’s easy to laugh about how ineffective this surveillance system might be, especially in certain cases: How did they miss the Boston-bombing Tsarnaev brothers? Why can’t the feds locate NSA leaker Edward Snowden in a worldwide manhunt? “Agency Busy Spying on Three Hundred Million People Failed to Notice One Dude Working For It,” wrote the New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz. But to point out flaws, even arrogance, in the concept thatdata can tell us everything is to miss the point that our leaders apparently think data is all-seeing, and have taken it upon themselves to gather it without real oversight.
The biggest problem with this whole surveillance mess is that it was secret. We simply have not, as a democratic society, had the conversation about what kinds of freedoms and privacies we are willing to give up in exchange for what kinds of safety and security. As President Barack Obama put it in his false dichotomy June 7, “you can’t have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy.”
Nobody’s asking for such a thing (nevermind that both concepts are unquantifiable) — we’re asking for a clear and transparent balance between security and privacy, a balance arrived at through a public debate, both in Americans’ own lives and in Congress. (Also useful would be a conversation through the courts; at present, only government attorneys are permitted to appear at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s secret hearings, removing any possibility that government claims could be challenged or questioned.)
But it’s hard to talk about the details of these programs without security clearances; whether it should be or not, most of this work is classified. That’s where a post-9/11 recommendation that has finally borne fruit comes in.