Archived Story

How do we measure and treasure privacy?

Published 9:31am Friday, June 28, 2013

Column: Notes From Home, by David Behling

We’re shocked. Shocked, I tell you.

Edward Snowden leaked details of NSA spying on Americans. And we are shocked that the U.S. government has been monitoring Internet and email traffic.

In the midst of our shock, Americans debate whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. We argue about whether the NSA’s spying on us is warranted or unwarranted or both. We disagree with each other about how to protect ourselves from mad bombers and gunmen. Some of us want to keep our visits to Facebook and calls to stockbrokers private, while others care more about security.

The “shock” at the revelations is actually the hardest part of this whole story to believe. Of course the government is monitoring the Internet. Of course our privacy isn’t what we pretended it was, even when we live in places like Albert Lea or Conger.

The other reason this shock is so hard to take is because the vast majority of Americans (and probably Europeans as well, despite their own shock at these revelations) routinely give away our privacy on social networking sites, via transactions with online businesses and through apps on our mobiles.

How do you think those ads show up in Facebook? Or Google’s search results? Or in Bing and Yahoo? Corporate spying on American citizens is endemic; it’s the way many of them make their profits.

Privacy just isn’t possible. In fact, I don’t think it really ever was, even before the rise of the Internet; there was no “golden age” of privacy when people could just go off and do whatever they wanted with nobody else noticing. There are always other people around … eventually.

Our government has been spying on us for decades, probably since the protests of the civil rights movement and Vietnam War era. And other governments have been, too: South Africa during the Apartheid era and Russia back when it was the Soviet Union. Today, it’s China, especially if we use certain words in our correspondence: Free Tibet! Tiananmen Square!

Leaks about government invasions of privacy have also been around for as long as secrets have been collected. If there had been no leaks, Nixon would not have been caught, the dirty lies at the heart of the Vietnam War would not have been exposed, and the illegal sale of missiles to Iranian religious fanatics would have continued.

Safety and security are important, but the executive branch of our government should not be left alone to creep through our digital, virtual lives without any boundaries. We can’t do anything about the spying and intrusions into social networks and email by foreigners, but our own spying needs to be monitored by judges who aren’t just rubberstamping government requests, and subject to regular and openly debated renewal by Congress.

At least once a year, and preferably quarterly, entities like Facebook, Google and Verizon need to be able to report the number of government intrusions into user’s accounts. And after five years, all of these intrusions need to be reported to the individuals being monitored.

The government needs to publicly charge people with crimes: No secret charges in secret courts with classified evidence that even the defendant can’t look at. And no “letters” to anybody that can’t then be talked about or shown to journalists, if the individual targeted wishes to make the concerns or accusations open to all. The process for getting on (and off) of watch lists definitely needs to be transparent.

Should the NSA collect “big data” so analysts can see the things they need to watch against the background of the Internet itself? Yes. I say go for it.

As far as Snowden is concerned, I don’t think he’s a traitor, but also don’t see him as a hero. Traitors try to destroy the countries they used to call home, and he’s not trying to destroy America. He wants to strengthen it, however dangerously misguided his attempts. But heroes don’t run and hide within the borders of authoritarian regimes. They stay home and fight for what they believe is true.

If Snowden believed in what he was doing, he would stand and face the press and the politicians. He’d bring all that he knows out in open court and press the judges and prosecutors to speak to the programs he exposed. And if we were a people that really believed in democracy, we would make sure that he got that opportunity.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.