NSA Surveillance Shouldn't Be a Religious Issue
Perhaps the best take on last week's revelations about how the government is collecting all our phone records came from David Simon, who actually got it wrong.
I say "best" because Simon, standing nearly alone in the middle of a battlefield with screeching hyenas on one side and credulous buffoons on the other, has been one of the relatively few to approach this issue without any ideological baggage and with true intellectual honesty. No matter what approach we take to protecting ourselves from terrorists, we're going to have to give up some privacy. The question is how much privacy we should give up, and by what means we should do so? To pretend we don't have to make such a tradeoff is to live in a fantasy world.
You wouldn't know that from the reactions of the privacy maximalists, a weird amalgamation of left-wing, tech-focused civil-liberties advocates and Dale Gribble-style right-wing libertarian types. They are at war with the security maximalists, who also comprise a weird mix -- of neocon paranoiacs and mindlessly indiscriminate Obama supporters. Like many issues surrounding information policy (such as the copyright wars), this issue doesn't break down along traditional partisan lines. But that doesn't mean it's free of ideology -- it's as ideological as can be, in fact, just not along the usual left-right spectrum. But just like with most issues, a lot of the loudest voices seem to belong to people who think it's an easy question, and that you must take either one "side" or the other.
Simon got it wrong because, while he made a very good case for why we shouldn't go into full freakout mode over this revelation, he didn't make a successful case for why we shouldn't consider it disturbing that the National Security Agency is collecting the phone records of every American citizen. The test has to be whether the NSA's collection of that information -- numbers called, the duration of each call, location data, etc. -- achieves the right mix of privacy and security. It doesn't. Any given citizen's chance of being the victim of a terror attack on American soil is extremely low (way lower, for example, than the chance of being shot in the brain by a fellow citizen). And while we must do what we can to protect ourselves, it shouldn't be at the expense of giving up our personal data to a secretive agency (and who knows who else) that can be misused to do real harm.
Simon's comparison of the program to the surveillance employed by the Baltimore police to nab drug dealers in the early 1980s (as Simon, who was a Baltimore Sun cops reporter at the time, later depicted in his show The Wire) was accurate only in a general sense -- enough to support his theoretical argument, but not enough to justify the NSA program. As Kevin Drum of Mother Jones points out, while data from innocent private citizens was collected for the Baltimore wire, it was by its nature a temporary tactic. It didn't represent a regime of spying on citizens, presumably in perpetuity, as the NSA program does.
Still, Simon took on valid arguments that ran contrary to his, and he addressed them. He engaged with his readers in the comments on his blog -- surprisingly smart and cogent ones, for the most part. He recognized that this is an issue that -- like all issues, but more so than most -- involves making difficult trade-offs. Contrast Simon's passionate, intellectually honest, and thoughtful (if flawed) argument to press critic Jay Rosen's glib, typically flippant, dishonest attempt at a summation of it (on Twitter, natch), "Nothing new here. God, this is boring. Most of you are without a clue. Your panic is pathetic. David Simon on NSA."
A bunch of other people on Twitter and elsewhere expressed their dismay that Simon, who has spent a lifetime exposing power structures and examining how institutions tend to work more on their own behalf rather than on behalf of the people they supposedly represent and serve, had betrayed them. For some of these people, that lifetime now means nothing, because Simon broke camp on this one issue. For the many people who see this as a quasi-religious issue, Simon's post -- as honest and purposely open to challenge as it might have been -- amounted to apostasy.
Not that Simon is completely alone in approaching this issue honestly and without an ideological axe to grind (see The Atlantic's James Fallows, for instance), but he was early out of the gate, and as the the privacy maximalists, encased in their Twitter bubble, continued to cast this as a simple case of a nefarious government vs. its own citizens, it was helpful to direct people to Simon's assessment of the situation. Whether you agree with him or not, reading his piece, and the ensuing debate in the comments, will help you understand the issue. And isn't that always better than being told what to think by rank ideologues quoting scripture from within a bubble?
Not that many people outside that bubble care very much one way or the other. For all the implicit insistence that we must take a "side" on this issue (the program is either a responsible security measure or pure evil. Edward Snowden, whose leak led to the revelations, is either a hero or a villain), Americans in general don't seem particularly exercised by it either way. The contrast this week between my Twitter and Facebook feed was downright startling. Twitter was, and continues to be, absolutely overwhelmed by the NSA revelation. Facebook, meanwhile, has almost completely silent on the matter (my Facebook friends tend to represent the world at large much better than do the people I follow on Twitter). Others have made the same observation.
The difference between the bubble and the world outside it was made clear late this week when Pew Research released the results of a poll indicating that a slight majority (56 percent) of the public is in favor of the NSA program.
The poll also indicated that a lot of Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, are more than willing to totally change their opinions on this matter depending on who happens to be sitting in the White House. No matter where you go in modern America, you're going to find a lot of people in bubbles of one kind or another. Which is one big reason why it's getting harder and harder to get anything done.