A dozen years ago or so, when the Patriot Act first came about, those of us who protested were dubbed liberal whiners who didn’t understand the new reality of the so-called war on terror. But things have changed. This week multiple stories “broke” (how that happens is another story – was it the Chinese who leaked it? Republicans? A lone-wolf-whistleblower-red-blooded-hero? The administration itself?) about the supposed scope of the privacy invasion that was the real fruit of that war. All of our phone calls are monitored and collected. All of our internet activity is mined and perused, not only for commercial purposes (we knew that!) but for political ones as well. Everything we say and do is being listened to intently by devious spies and nefarious agents worldwide.
Part of the outrage stems from the self-centeredness of every generation since the dawn of history, each one secretly yearning to be “the chosen” or “the last” or “the greatest”, blessed by “the end times” or apocalypse or dystopian disaster. It’s the “me generation” re-written as the “look at me” generation every go around. Now we are the spied-upon, the ones whose status updates are being watched over by Big Brother Obama.
Because that’s another part of the outrage. Democrats have longed – since Kennedy if not before – to take back the Alpha Dog position vis-a-vis the military against the Republicans, but somehow the Democrats’ old white men haven’t been as convincing as the Republicans’ old white men even though the leaders of both parties have lately been draft dodgers (Clinton, Bush, Cheney) and their military vets (like Kerry) somehow get emasculated every time. Along comes Obama, another draft evader, and hardly macho, but still a black man who has capitalized on the white fear of black men and then along with killing Osama Bin Laden he has not hesitated to use military force (against Somalian pirates, against American Islamist citizens in Yemen, maintaining the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc …), and this regained the high ground for Democrats macho-military-wise. The liberal whiners hate all that, and the Republicans hate Obama already for countless reasons, so this week the two wings have found the perfect grounds on which to collaborate.
Don’t you love the word “collaborate”?
Another sidebar of the outrage is the use of language in the denials coming forth from every quarter. The tech companies deny that the government has “direct access” or a “back door” or a “black box” and there are all sorts of discussions about the words being used here. The Patriot Act explicitly forbids these companies from telling the truth about what they’re doing or even not doing, so they have to use these tortured and obscure phrasings to skirt around what’s actually going on. It is impossible to read between the lines.
Already Big Data has been the hot trending topic of the day in Silicon Valley, and there’s no Bigger Data than everything everyone says on the phone or types on the internet. What is to be gained from all this data mining? We know very well that Google et al can target advertisements at you based on the content of your email. How does this translate to the National Security Administration? Talk about needles in haystacks! My guess is that the likeliest outcome is better search algorithms in the long run, and in the short run a lot of dead ends and useless information, and undoubtedly some innocent people becoming confused with some not so innocent people. “Mistakes were made”. We can expect to be hearing that too. It’s always a good bet that mistakes will be made.
As always, it’s worth checking out what David Simon has to say about all this (the story does remind me of his show The Wire)