Skip to content

We want our cake, and want to eat it too.

I’ve of two minds about the current “scandal” about the government keeping track of phone numbers called by Verizon customers.

On one hand, I am extremely alarmed that we are rather quickly becoming a surveillance state, with pretty much our every move monitored and examined.

On the other hand, why are we so surprised? After 9/11, politicians on both sides — not to mention the American people — demanded that the government take every step to fight a war on terrorism. We passed the Patriot act with only one Congressman voting against it. Every traveler puts up with invasive, dehumanizing (and largely ineffective) searches every time they want to travel in an airplane. A large segment of the American population applauded the use of torture to gain information. And on and on. So why are we acting shocked?

David Simon has an excellent article on this. You should read it, and here is a short quote to encourage you to do so:

But those planes really did hit those buildings. And that bomb did indeed blow up at the finish line of the Boston marathon. And we really are in a continuing, low-intensity, high-risk conflict with a diffuse, committed and ideologically-motivated enemy. And for a moment, just imagine how much bloviating would be wafting across our political spectrum if, in the wake of an incident of domestic terrorism, an American president and his administration had failed to take full advantage of the existing telephonic data to do what is possible to find those needles in the haystacks. After all, we as a people, through our elected representatives, drafted and passed FISA and the Patriot Act and what has been done here, with Verizon and assuredly with other carriers, is possible under that legislation. Indeed, one Republican author of the law, who was quoted as saying he didn’t think the Patriot Act would be so used, has, in this frantic little moment of national overstatement, revealed himself to be either a political coward or an incompetent legislator. He asked for this. We asked for this. We did so because we measured the reach and possible overreach of law enforcement against the risks of terrorism and made a conscious choice.

Frankly, I’m a bit amazed that the NSA and FBI have their shit together enough to be consistently doing what they should be doing with the vast big-data stream of electronic communication. For us, now — years into this war-footing and this legal dynamic — to loudly proclaim our indignation at the maintenance of an essential and comprehensive investigative database while at the same time insisting on a proactive response to the inevitable attempts at terrorism is as childish as it is obtuse. We want cake, we want to eat it, and we want to stay skinny and never puke up a thing. Of course we do.

Lastly, who would have thought that Michael Moore and Glenn Beck would ever agree on anything? In simultaneous tweets, they both praised the leaker of this confidential information, with Moore calling him “hero of the year” and Beck calling him “the NSA patriot leaker”.

Now, the main question is whether we will actually do anything about the wholesale trampling on our privacy in the name of security. Or after the next terrorist attack, will we fall back in line demanding that the government do everything and anything to try to prevent it from happening again, the constitution be damned.



  1. Max wrote:

    Read “The Puzzle Palace”, it’s a classic. This isn’t some post-911 aberration; the NSA has always greedily vacuumed up whatever it could, with little restraint, either budgetary or legal.

    Monday, June 10, 2013 at 5:55 am | Permalink
  2. Arthanyel wrote:

    There is no NSA “leak” or “scandal”, there is only publicly acknowledging what we all asked for and have received under the Patriot Act.

    As for the reality of the “surveillance society” I have news for everyone – your electronic existence and the “big data” about your surfing, purchasing, and communications habits is already being data mined by everyone that wants your money and that’s not going to stop either. The benefits of the Web and mobile computing come at that price. It may be creepy and intrusive – it’s also unavoidable and unstoppable.

    Just remember every time you send an email or a text message you are writing for the Congressional Record, and think how it would look blown up to Calibri 144 on an exhibit board in a court room. And as long as it would look OK you are in good shape.

    Anything else, you should say in person in a noisy public location that isn’t a casino 🙂

    Monday, June 10, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink
  3. Hassan wrote:

    To me issue is of that of hypocrisy:

    1. First one, I was always under assumption this was just targeted on us (muslims), and most of us were just living with this fact anyways. But now when it is found out that it is massive surveillance (all americans not just muslims), everyone seems to be pissed of. I am sure if Obama comes and say, this was only restricted to muslims, everything will calm down.

    2. Liberals/Democrats (most of them with few exceptions) are not outraged as they would have if this story was broken under Bush. They are using various tactics (like this is nothing new, why surprised etc) to defend Obama.

    (PS: Obama I love you, NSA you are the best agency on the face of world. I completely agree with the government on all issues.)

    Monday, June 10, 2013 at 5:01 pm | Permalink
  4. Michael wrote:

    There’s a fundamental difference between the privacy implications of big data snooping by companies and by the government. One is (ostensibly) voluntary in exchange for services, while the other is compulsory.

    Furthermore, there’s one question that does not seem to be addressed in a lot of these articles: Does wholesale surveillance actually provide meaningful security? I would argue that it does not. The more data that you collect, the more false positives that must be evaluated. Would knowing the metadata of the Tsernaevs’ phone calls have prevented the Boston bombing? What about the 7/7 bombers? Mohamed Atta? How do you distinguish between them and the billions of other people in the world in an automated fashion?

    Intelligence in hindsight is always 20/20. This type of surveillance can serve a purpose in prosecution after the fact, but the likelihood of it preventing an attack is negligible at best.

    Monday, June 10, 2013 at 7:21 pm | Permalink
  5. Michael wrote:

    Btw, Hassan, I consider myself to be a liberal or progressive. Believe me, I am plenty outraged and will make no attempt to defend Obama for this one.

    Monday, June 10, 2013 at 7:24 pm | Permalink
  6. ebdoug wrote:

    Michael=Hassan was joking. Being Muslim, he doesn’t want anyone questioning him.
    Years ago in West Wing Week, we were given a tour of the intelligence center. So many people monitoring so many things. It was quite apparent that big brother was watching us which is what Osama Bin Laden wanted to accomplish. Disrupt our way of life. He won.

    Tuesday, June 11, 2013 at 6:29 am | Permalink
  7. il-08 wrote:

    Sorry, I just don’t get it. Everyone is pissed off that the government is legally doing exactly what we gave them the power to do ten years ago. We had this debate way back when, and we lost it to the fear mongers. All us silly liberals said it would lead to this, and it led to this. WHY OH WHY is ANYONE surprised????

    The time for this debate was ten years ago and it is long over. Now it is just a distraction, and a very potent one, because the left lets itself be distracted by this very old news.

    Tuesday, June 11, 2013 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  8. Hassan wrote:

    IL-08, even with current laws on paper, it is not legal at all. Because:

    1. You can not interpret law in secret to mean it something totally different what commonsense would suggest.
    2. The law clearly states that the person being spied on must be outside US (one party of the communication)

    Tuesday, June 11, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink
  9. il-08 wrote:

    Hassan, you may be right, but I would suggest that history has shown us that your #1 statement above may be logical and common sense, but it often ignored.

    Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 7:57 am | Permalink
  10. Michael wrote:

    IL-08, I remember trying to have those conversations 10 years ago. I also remember a cousin saying that our blood relationship was the only thing stopping him from hitting me in the face. And he’s one of the more informed relatives.

    Sadly, I think those of us who are still angry about this are just preaching to the choir.

    Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Permalink
  11. Arthanyel wrote:

    Common sense is, unfortunately, no real basis for legal decisions. So Hassan’s #1 point is not exactly correct. Courts cannot make decisions in secret that are ot odds with the decision they would make on camera, but common sense is not a standard.

    As for the #2 point, that’s not true at all. Read the text of the current law. That said, it DOES say that that the person being spied on cannot be a US citizen exercising their First Amendment right to free speech, so in theory there would have to be some probable cause.

    But therein lies the rub. The NSA is NOT READING YOUR EMAIL. They are not reading your phone records. They are data mining them for things that ARE “probable cause” and once they spot something, THEN they are reading your email. So it will be an interesting question if its invading your privacy or violating the First Amendment to run a search.

    Thursday, June 13, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink