By Bob Gaydos
Hi there. Thanks for clicking on this article. I feel obliged to warn you right off that you and I are probably not alone in this seemingly intimate connection. Odds are this interchange is being monitored by some government or private computer for the purpose of, well, maybe for the sole purpose of demonstrating that it can be done.
And it is done, routinely, to anyone and everyone who uses a computer, lap top, tablet, or cell phone. Privacy has become a quaint concept, an anachronism, in the computer era. The very tool that has freed us to a world of instant information and communication has also stripped us of something we cherish, our privacy.
Let me amend that. The tool is not to blame. It's the people using it. They have entered our lives -- admittedly often at our initial invitation -- to such an extent that savvy technicians can put together accurate profiles of us in short order. Mostly, these people work for private companies that want to sell us something based on our computer behavior. Of course, those with malice in their heart can and do use their skills and the gathered data for purposes such as identity theft or simply installing a computer virus for no apparent reason.
This is not news to you, I'm sure. What's perhaps new and most troubling to me is the extent to which our own government is involved in spying on us. Recent revelations by Edward Snowden of a massive cell-phone data-collection program run by the National Security Agency targeting average American citizens has been followed up with revelations of the extent to which the NSA also has used popular Internet service providers such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Bing, AOL, Apple, Facebook, and YouTube to compile information on private citizens.
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Why national security, of course. There could very well be potential terrorists lurking out there among those cute cat photos and it is part of our eternal war on terrorism to try to find them among the billions of clicks per day on computers.
That's the company line and there is a small element of truth in it. But we can't assess how valuable the snooping has been because the government (the White House and Congress) won't tell us anything that can be verified by uninvolved parties. (And the head of the CIA lies to Congress without getting fired.)
Mostly, though, I have come to believe (and this is why I warn you this column may be bugged) that our government snoops do this kind of thing because they can and they really don't see it is an invasion of privacy and most certainly do not consider the massive potential for abuse it presents. This is scary. When the computer spies forget that they, too, are American citizens and also suffer from any erosion of individual privacy along with the rest of us, the slippery slope to total control of the citizenry has begun. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness lose their meaning.
Well, consider the reaction of President Obama when Snowden subsequently revealed that the United States was snooping on countries in the European Union and elsewhere. These are our friends, mind, our allies. The EU folks erupted with indignant surprise. They were outraged, etc. Obama said, in effect, what's the big deal? Everybody does it.
Which is in large part true. The EU huffing and puffing was largely for show. They knew they were bugged and some of them also bugged official United States locations for the purpose of -- what?
The nonchalant nature of the practice on an international scale bespeaks an inability and/or unwillingness to trust friends at their word or to get some kind of edge on them in international diplomacy. So I ask, why would this attitude not translate into domestic spying? It's no big deal. Everybody does it. National security, you know? Trust us, we mean you no harm.
Really? Well then, why is the entire process sealed in secrecy, with a special court granting rubber-stamp warrants for the government bugging private citizens? Why is the court answerable to no one in the public? Why are its rulings free from challenge? Why are private contractors (Snowden was one), not actual government employees, given access to such highly classified information? What happens to the data collected on U.S. citizens who turn out to be really just "average" Americans connecting with friends or venting frustration on Facebook? Why are most of our political leaders focusing on Snowden's release of "classified" data rather than on the enormity of the spying effort on private citizens?
And why should we not be concerned that instructions are available on line on how to turn computer cameras (yes, Skype, too) and cell-phone cameras into devices that can spy on their owners, a weapon that obviously could be used by serious government computer spies? And probably is. (Put tape over the lens without actually touching it. Shut it off in the bedroom.)
We "average citizens" have definitely been complicit in creating this situation, but most of were also a bit naïve: I have nothing to hide, so why should I worry about putting personal information on line? That may have been a valid view at one time, but it ignored the reality that those with a certain amount of power inevitably seek to expand their power and control.
Our government is supposed to protect us from this. When it is the offending party, we need to challenge it. We have no choice. We must do this peaceably, but vigorously, through public demonstrations (as the Occupy movement tried), petitions, messages to elected officials, support for candidates who want to shine light on such programs and eliminate abuses, rejection of candidates who support the spying, protests to and boycotts of companies that cooperate with spying efforts, And by voicing opinions of protest on line.
Which is where I came in. Thanks for reading this. Don't bother deleting; Big Brother already knows you were here.
Bob Gaydos is a veteran of 40-plus years in daily newspapers. He began as police reporter with The (Binghamton, N.Y.) Sun-Bulletin, eventually covering government and politics as well as serving as city editor, features editor, sports editor and (more...)