Edward Snowden isn’t exactly hot news these days. Stole documents, NSA spying, ran to Russia to avoid extradition, blah blah blah. The revelations that were revealed remain topical – big government is spying on all of us – but somehow, no-one seems to think its newsworthy these days.
Many people, myself included, had the initial thought of ‘so what?’ After all, if the government wants to listen into my weekly transatlantic calls to my mother on the topics of ‘what illness have we got this week’ and ‘I’m watching Dancing the the Stars right now, can I call you back?’ – well have at it NSA. Listen away. As for my emails, well I really could give a crap on whether some spying lacky reads my latest missive to my sister about the beauty of the 5 miler, or my most recent review on Zappos. Online search history? Nothing to hide here other than a slight embarrassment at the amount of lingerie sites I visit, and the phantom shopping I do (you know, add the cart then close the site because, well, I do have bills to pay).
But it always made me feel a bit icky. Something slightly not quite ‘ok’ about the whole thing. All that access, everything I do being stored somewhere… made me feel a little uneasy even though I wasn’t sure why.
After reading about the NSA files, I realized that clicking sound on the line that my mother had complained about since 2002 was probably a wire tap. After all, I flew to the UK on Sept 10th and flew back on Sept 15th – I was automatically a person of interest to the government. As an legal alien I was searched at every airport as a matter of course since my arrival in 1998, and I knew that until the whole ‘terror’ thing faded, that it was a safety measure, a necessity. I didn’t feel safe and having people watching, well it made me think that somehow, it was all for a good cause.
Then last year I became a US citizen. As I sat in front of the immigration agent and my 4 inch thick FBI file (oh yes!), I was questioned about everything from my NRA membership (expired), gun ownership, international travel and political party affiliation. Every donation I’d made to Planned Parenthood, and even my clicks at online polls. I was stunned that they knew so much about me, but I figured – hey, at least they don’t let in just anyone.
(jokes on me huh?)
So when the NSA revelations came to light I wasn’t terrible surprised. The scale, the size of it was astonishing, but I knew they’d been tracking me – sort of – so the fact that they were tracking everyone..well, its the US. Go big or go home. But something about having all that data about me (and everyone else) tracked, monitored, searchable and stored indefinitely by the government smacked of 1984. It initially seemed ‘harmless’ (especially since I’m not a terrorist or a criminal on the lam), but then I started to wonder about the longer term ramifications of the program. Especially when the whole thing became public, major corporations lobbied the NSA to stop it, the President was presented with 30 suggested changes to the problem and as of today, nothing has changed.
Again, a lot of you might be sighing and thinking ‘so what?’ So the NSA knows I buy too many shoes and the intimate details of my bank account. They read my online flirts with that guy from work or know who my friends are from my Facebook account. So they can track my movements on my phone GPS, watch me through my computer’s video camera and pretty much follow me around the world. They’re only using that data to fight terrorists. And I’m not one. So what?
As part of my becoming a citizen I read a lot of US history. And anyone who’s not been buried under a rock knows that back in the 50s and 60s, the big ‘terror’ in the US was ‘communists’. ‘Commies’ were going to be the death of the US way of life, and Hoover and McCarthy made it their life’s mission to make sure that didn’t happen. People of interest were monitored and tracked, letters were read, phones were tapped and eventually ‘persons of interest’ were outed and put on the stand accused on treasonous acts against the US and communist sympathies. Lives were ruined, sometimes on very little tangible evidence and some of those went to prison.
Today the terror is from extremists. Extremists not defined by a country, a faith, a desire to invade or convert the country to a new economic system. Nope, the fear these days are people who don’t like the US, the values of the country and, according to GW, ‘our freedoms’ (again, debatable).
Are you an extremist?
Didn’t think so. After all, in your head you’re not waving an AK-47, wearing a hijab or shouting ‘death to infidels’. Today’s definition of an extremist that is.
But what if tomorrow’s definition of an extremist is something different (as it undoubtedly will be). What if its people who rally for a higher minimum wage? People who camp out in support of Occupy? Those who don’t agree with what the government is doing and ‘take to the streets’ in search of something different. Lets say, socialism (an ugly word for essentially the provision of government services to support the people). Lets say socialism becomes the next ‘extremist’ target of the government. People who want healthcare provided by the government, who want better social welfare, who meet in small groups to figure out how to make their voice heard. Who lobby and march for a better social safety net. Some of whom might directly and vocally criticize the government.
Who now, armed with a wealth of data about every citizen’s movements, their network of friends and colleagues, their phone calls and communications… really wouldn’t have a problem tracking down who the new ‘threat’ is. One day you’re attending a rally or signing an online petition for better funding for hospitals, the next you’re standing in court being accused of acts of treason.
Sounds ludicrous doesn’t it?
I’m sure that those 50’s communist sympathizers initially thought so too .
Except back in the 50s, the government only targeted a few. After all, there were only so many phones they could tap, letters they could read, people they could follow. There were no handheld devices, no GPS, no portable video cameras, no email, no social networks and no cellphones. In fact, its amazing they managed to drag people into court with such as absence of source data.
Well we wouldn’t have that problem today, now would we?
Today.. with the accumulation of big data on all of us, and everything we do, well its limitless as to what the government can know about you, your life and what you think and believe. In fact, if you think about that article you read and liked (tracked), that online petition you signed (tracked), that Facebook posted you ‘Liked’ (tracked), that call you made (tracked), that country you visited (tracked), that vote you made….
What doesn’t the government know about you? If they cared to look.
Luckily, right now, you’re not that interesting.
But one day you might be.
So before you turn the channel or click past the next bit of NSA files news, pause for a second.
It might not relate to you today – after all, you’ve got nothing to hide do you?- but one day, down the road, you just might. What is deemed socially acceptable may change (after all, its not illegal to want a higher minimum wage or more funding for schools right now is it?), and with it, you might suddenly become a person of interest.
McCarthyism and ‘big brother’ isn’t just historical fact or Orwellian fiction. They’re markers of society that we shouldn’t ignore. Because what is laughable today ‘if they want to listen to our phone sex, have at it’, might not be so laughable in 20, 30 or 50 years down the road.
And by then.. it’ll be much too late.