NEWS ITEM: Meta data that aggregates information on the personal communications patterns of everyday citizens is being collected by the NSA.
The news cycle on this story continues as this post is written. Depending on your source of information, the NSA story -- and the source of the leak -- has supplanted Benghazi, AP wiretaps, the drone program, and the IRS scrutiny of Tea Party NFP groups as a topic of interest. Or, it has become "the latest example" in a pattern of overreach in the case many feel compelled to make against the federal government in general, and President Obama specifically.
Is such data collection unethical in a democracy? Is it necessary? If so, is it necessary to this degree? These are all critical questions we need to ask of ourselves, our elected representatives in Congress,and our president.
However, what I find particularly useless is the shrill tone of some news reports, as if the issue is binary: we either have the data collection, or not. Some of the most respected newsgathering organizations in the world have, of late, come off like Jackie Chiles, the ambulance-chasing attorney in the Seinfeld series: "It's an infringement on your constitutional rights. It's outrageous, egregious, preposterous."
Let's try to sort this out. Real New Yorkers understand privacy, and the lack thereof. From old-time telephone "party-lines" -- where one would pick up a rotary dial phone and hear neighbors jabbering away (you'd have to wait until they were finished with their call in order to make yours) -- to entire families scrambling to get ready for work and school with a single down-the-hall bathroom, to sardine can-squished subway riders, New Yorkers make their peace with privacy.
Real New Yorkers can also recite the precise sequence of events on the day of September 11, 2001. To us, it was far from simply a terrible news story or a theoretical concern. Those of us who survived lost family, and neighbors. We smelled the death in the air, and regularly broke into tears for a long, long time after the actual events of that day had transpired.
Electronic privacy concerns have haunted us, from time to time, for decades. Those of us with long memories and a passion for media watching can remember a hue and cry over privacy issues going back to the mid-80s, with extensive articles on marketer misconduct written in the pre-Murdoch Wall Street Journal. Even back then, companies such as American Express had computing power that rivaled, if not surpassed, the Pentagon's. Personal information was collected, analyzed and massaged by powerful supercomputers. The result? Highly targeted marketing information that yielded more valuable product offers -- or, invasion of personal privacy, depending on one's point of view.
Think about this: Was it really less than a year ago that the very same media outlets now taking the Administration to task on their editorial pages beamed so appreciatively at the surgically precise data analysis capabilities of the Obama campaign organization?
I would, personally, be more comfortable if the U.S. government's agencies did not collect my information on phone calls, emails, tweets, Skype calls, purchases, social media sites, and more.
I would also feel a lot more comfortable if:
• terrorist groups also played by the rules
• consumer product marketers didn't trade my purchasing pattern info like an eight-year old's baseball card
• Congress initiated talks to repeal the Patriot Act (signed into law in October of 2001) -- and individual members admitted to the public whether or not they voted for the Patriot Act
• Mid-level analysts at companies such as Booz Allen Hamilton had less access to high-level personal information than the average Congressional representative
• Legacy publishers came out with a statement declaring that they are not dangling multi-million dollar book deals in the leaker's face
• Media sources of all stripes pursued the impact of the sequester, the growing U.S. disparity between rich and poor, the cutting of programs for those less fortunate -- and more -- with the same zeal, the same passion, that they have with their amplification of the Guardian's privacy story
• Citizens who are that concerned with their privacy take personal action and stop their credit card purchases, get off social media platforms, and quit emailing, Tweeting, Skyping, texting, calling, driving, and more. If it's that much of an issue for you, get off the grid completely. Corporations have been mining your data for a long, long time and you're upset. I get that. So, then, isn't it time you stopped enabling these sneaky people.
The genie has long been out of this particular bottle. We live in a digital age, as do the world's bad guys. Our very water supply is managed digitally.
Protection is needed and, yes, the question is one of utility versus overreach. It is extremely uncomfortable to live in a real-world version of Person of Interest. "The Machine" kinda-sorta exists, we have recently learned. And it's upsetting. Which is why this is a discussion that needs to be conducted immediately, as well as rationally and realistically.
Not by politicization of the privacy issue.