Why I’m not losing sleep over PRISM.

Photo by WekWek

I’m probably about to anger a few friends, but I’ll state at the outset that of all the things I’m concerned about in this world (and there are many), the PRISM program doesn’t even get on my radar.  No, I do not think Ed Snowdon is a particularly heroic whistleblower, and I am not alone in that belief, but bear with me, and let me first offer a bit of context as to why this story is exactly the kind of digital-age phenomenon that inspired this blog.

The seeds of The Illusion of More were planted amid the brouhaha over the SOPA/PIPA bills while observing the unprecedented role of social media on our political process.  Even if I hadn’t supported those bills, I considered the mechanics and the tone of the reaction against them to be a truly dysfunctional combination of hysteria, ignorance, lazy journalism, and corporate manipulation.  As a result, I began paying closer attention to my own habits and biases as well as those of my friends, realizing that even we GenXers who finished college before the internet went public seemed to be abandoning many basic rules of reasoning for the sake of sharing news fragments and incendiary headlines.  And even if one does click on a shared article, for example, the quality of so much reportage has been degraded by the expansion of media itself to the extent that even traditional news organizations now source one another and work hardest to capture traffic and cover the meta story rather than soberly investigate the crux of the matter. Then, we add in political and vested interests and individual biases, and I began to wonder if this tool that is supposed to foster a better informed electorate wasn’t having exactly the opposite effect.  The seminal moment for me happened the day one of my smartest friends shared a viral story about why a particular senator voted against a bill for which he had in fact voted “Aye.”  It doesn’t get more basic than Yes v No, and it was while discussing these phenomena with my friend, political operative Cormac Flynn, that I first used the expression “illusion of more” to describe the paradox in which more access seemed to be making people less well-informed.

One of the problems with viral, emotional stories is that they create an instantaneous bandwagon of apparent consensus which, in turn, creates social pressure in an environment like Facebook to either be on or off said bandwagon even before there is time to seek out a voice from among the ever-shrinking population of reflective and experienced professionals.  In fact, voices like Thomas Friedman, Michael Moynihan, David Brooks, and Alan Dershowitz do offer sensible recommendations to tone down the hysteria over Prism in favor of a conversation that includes the recognition that counter-terrorism intelligence gathering is not some bogeyman invented by “the government” in order to create an authoritarian state. It is as though all those Americans running out to buy copies of 1984 forgot that 9/11 ever happened, and I agree with Friedman, who writes, “If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: ‘Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.’ That is what I fear most.” In short, if we maintain a constant witch hunt against even the legitimate actions of our national security forces, we risk bringing about conditions that would foster real, rather than theoretical, threats to civil liberty.

Consider the typically brief interval between Ed Snowdon revealing his identity and TV news polls asking Is he a hero or a traitor?  This side-show makes great filler and creates synergy between social media and broadcasting, but it is an utterly useless distraction from the very question it pretends to be asking. General consensus has already formed across the political spectrum, long before we ever heard of Mr. Snowdon, that all things government are bad and thus all so-called whistleblowers are presumed altruistic.  Social media has aggravated this oversimplified bias, and it is one we cling to at our peril, if we consider its larger implications.  While oversight is an essential, and believe it or not still extant, component of the American system, a universal and unwavering distrust in “the government” is tantamount to distrust in one another, and this is the cancer that grows into a malignant threat to civil liberty.  “The government” still comprises millions of fellow citizens who are as diverse, as well-intentioned, or as flawed as those of us who are not “the government.”  But if one automatically judges a story like Prism through the “government bad” filter, there is no way to come to any conclusion other than the one already assumed. Thus we cannot rationally determine whether or not Edward Snowdon is really warning us about something sinister.

On the subject of privacy, I’m hardly the only person to mention that through social media and GPS enabled phones, we already volunteer more information about our lives than the NSA could want or possibly find of any practical use.  So, watching friends and colleagues use Facebook and Twitter to share their fears about the government listening to our calls and reading our emails is satire that ought to be self-explanatory.  Or as humorist Andy Borowitz put it:  “Man with 9,000 photos on Facebook angry over government spying.”  In all seriousness, I do wonder if the indignation over Prism is not only overwrought but functionally obsolete since we chose to give up privacy at least a decade ago.  Moreover, if you might agree that universal distrust in “government” implies a distrust in one another, then how do we reconcile the dichotomy of social media?  Why do I trust that none of my 400+ “Friends” will not use the information I share to cause me harm, and by the same token, why should I assume that my friend at the FBI will misuse someone’s information thus?  To be blunt, if everyone is really worried, why don’t we see a mass abandonment of social media?

Don’t get me wrong.  I assume my life is a potentially open book in the digital age, but when considering my personal level of concern vis a vis government abuse, the calculus goes something like this:  take the information we already share voluntarily, which is considerable; add (if you want) the information we believe to be private; divide that total by the vast but still limited analytic capacity of intelligence services; then factor for the reality that most analysts really are looking for specific needles in the haystack; and the answer is probably such a small increase in actual surveillance of concern that I wonder if we have measurably tipped the scale away from the value of liberty. Is Prism really a major increase in substantive invasion of privacy, or is the program more like the cops and soldiers we see at the train station, who are indeed seeing all of us but by are by no means interested in all of us?  Within the intelligence services, relevant and contextual analysis would have to be dramatically outpaced by the rate of data collection, and it’s a given that most of the data are meaningless, dynamic, and rapidly obsolete. Thus, if Occam’s Razor is our divining rod, then the government’s statement that the NSA is not listening to our phone calls or reading our emails, is actually the most rational conclusion. The explanation from the Obama administration really is the one that makes the most sense — that what’s being gathered is metadata for the purposes of pattern detection, which is both legally and technologically a very different animal from mining the content of a phone call or an email.

Of course, in the video segment on The Guardian, Ed Snowdon describes a system in which all our data are gathered, analyzed (although he doesn’t define how it’s analyzed), and stored in such a way that it can be used at some point in the future against any one of us.  This raises two natural fears we might describe as the cockroach and The Crucible.*  In Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, a cockroach falls into the machinery at the Ministry of Information and changes the printed name of a wanted man by one letter; and this absurd error sets the plot in motion when the innocent man is summarily abducted, tortured, and murdered by the faceless authority.  And, of course, Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible dramatizes how the motivation of personal vendetta can maliciously abuse state authority to destroy a fellow citizen.  These fears are very real and continue to be borne out every day and in most societies, but does a program like PRISM increase the likelihood of either the cockroach or The Crucible, or is it  being blown out of proportion and shattering some lingering illusion of privacy to which some of us still cling?

As this story unfolds, and each opportunist makes hay while Snowdon’s sun shines, I seriously advocate settling down on the rhetoric that a program like Prism moves America closer to authoritarian rule.  It’s true that, in theory, a government agency can spy on everyone (think China), but how effectively this translates into authoritarianism depends on factors other than the intelligence apparatus being employed.  In the U.S. for instance, I tend to have faith in our love of social chaos as a humanistic buffer against authoritarian rule.  We Americans have been openly cussing and spitting at one another from Day One, and our lack of a common culture is good for democratic health the same way cross breeding is good for genetic health.  To have an authoritarian state requires that a substantial segment of a given population have faith in the authority, and this usually depends upon something cultural like religion, race, or tribe.  And while we do have those types who would define what it means to be a “real American,” it’s worth remembering that most of us are still mutts, and this includes those inside the defense and intelligence communities, the halls of Congress, and the White House.

I was no fan of George W. Bush, primarily because I considered him to be incurious about the complexities of the world, and his famous decisiveness is a tragic flaw when it is not tempered by contemplation.  Still, during his last press conference, he was asked about some of the programs started under his administration and the promise by Obama to change directions.  Bush essentially said, “I wish him luck,” which was both sincere and sardonic. And I remember thinking in that moment that no matter who the president is, he or she will get a security briefing that very few people in the world ever see. And I wondered then if some of Obama’s more idealistic promises of transparency might come back to haunt him once he was privy to more of the complexities of the global security landscape.  We can choose to pretend otherwise, but cyberspace is without question a new battlefield just as it is a new social sphere.  I think it’s right that we debate matters of security in telecommunications, but we cannot have an effective debate based on the premise that nobody in the entire apparatus of our elected government knows anything every time one guy blows a whistle.

*ADDENDUM:  In this story by Gail Collins, we find a perfect example of the cockroach  in the story of the wrongful incarceration of Brandon Mayfield.

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