The news that the NSA is monitoring pretty much every phone call in America, and accessing our electronic communications as well, is scary stuff. There may be no more certain evidence of how disconcerting the American public is finding these revelations than the fact that George Orwell’s classic novel about a future, dystopian surveillance state (the originator of terms like “big brother”) have surged in the wake of the scandal.
Still, the domestic spying is not without its defenders, and those defenders are quick to invoke the threat of terrorism as justification.
“The exposure of the PRISM program under which the NSA monitors foreign terrorists on the Internet, as well as the leak of a top-secret court order requiring Verizon to share calling data with the government, are incredibly damaging to national security,” wrote Marc Thiessen for the Washington Post. “These leaks give terrorists information they did not have about our collection activities. They undermine the willingness of American companies to cooperate with us because these leaks have put their international reputations at risk. And they teach everyone — including sources and liaison partners — not to work with us because we cannot keep a secret.”
Thissen and others who believe as he does say that the NSA must have access to our emails, and must know who we’re calling and for when and how long, because otherwise the terrorists might win.
But what if there’s something worse than terrorism?
A conservative friend and I were discussing the NSA controversies this week. My friend, a gamer, said he was worried about the latest iteration of the Xbox platform which apparently has a built-in camera and an always-on internet connection that is required for the unit to function. “The resolution on the Kinect 2 camera is so high that it actually can identify your face,” reports Vince Horiuch for the Salt Lake Tibune. “It not only can read your body in two dimensions, but also its depth. And it can even read which muscles are flexing and how your weight is being distributed to each leg. The camera is so sensitive, Microsoft claims it can read your heartbeat.”
With the government already monitoring our electronic communications, would it be a crackpot conspiracy theory to suggest that the government could access that camera and peer into our living rooms and bedrooms?
That’s the problem. We don’t know. Because knowing, according to people like Mr. Thiessen, would compromise our ability to go after the terrorists.
But what’s worse? A terrorist attack? Or generations of Americans growing up not knowing if the government is reading their emails? Not knowing if the government is monitoring their phone calls? Not knowing if that webcam sitting in their office or living room is secretly monitoring their activity? Not knowing if rogue government employees might be using the vast amounts of information they’re collecting on us for political purposes, such as was the case in the recent IRS scandals?
What’s worse, devastating but occasional terrorist attacks like 9/11 or George Orwell’s world of 1984?
Or is that even really the choice?
We’re told that the TSA’s invasive screening techniques, which have rubber-gloved bureaucrats touching very private areas of our bodies and going through our bags wholesale, are necessary to stop terrorism. But how many attacks has the TSA really stopped? How many attacks has the NSA stopped?
Again, we don’t know. We can’t even really make an informed decision about this debate, we can’t judge the performance of these spying tactics, because the government won’t even come clean about just how much surveillance the average US citizen is under.