By Other Means
Big Brother Doesn’t Scare Me
Amazon on the other hand...
Here’s the headline of the week: A lot of people know a lot about me.
By that, I do not mean that I am famous, though I have my fans. (Hi, Mom!) I’m referring to the latest round of Big Brother revelations. The government knows whom I call. It knows whom I email. It knows all kinds of stuff about me.
NSA, join the club. As I said, a lot of people know a lot about me.
Let’s list and categorize some of those people and some of the things they know:
1) My friends know a lot about me. Some of them have known me since elementary school. Collectively, they know about my bad 1980s hairstyle, my ill-advised romances, and a handful of youthful experiments with illegal substances. Anyone one of them could spread the word about any of this at any time. I live in fear.
2) My neighbors also know a lot about me. They know all about my slovenly habits with regard to the lawnmower. They know that I sometimes drive the kids to school while not fully and completely dressed because it’s really very damn early in the morning. They know that bloodcurdling screams sometimes emanate from our house at odd hours, and they probably wonder if someone’s being slaughtered in the cellar or if the kids are just having some good old-fashioned fun. They might report me to the police, or child protective services.
3) Strangers in public places — or sinister freaks stalking me — know a lot about me. Like everyone else, I occasionally yak away about my personal life to my cellphone, and anyone standing nearby could hear me. Someone could follow me all day, watching and listening, and I’d probably never notice, since I’m not a counter-surveillance expert. I sit in restaurants and bars and talk to my friends, who — see Item 1– know all about me already. It would be child’s play to eavesdrop.
4) The toll booth people know about me. I love EZ-Pass. That means an unknown number of officials and employees in states all up and down the eastern seaboard know where and when I travel.
5) Oh, those traffic cameras. Just because they caught my car speeding doesn’t mean I was speeding. How am I supposed to know what my car gets up to while I’m doing something else?
6) And then there are those store and parking-garage security cameras. Some security guard who’s paid $9.85 an hour has probably noticed that I occasionally change clothes in the car.
7) My health insurance company knows a lot about me. They know that I’m a hypochondriac and once went to the emergency room for what I was convinced was a heart attack but turned out to be heartburn. They know that my older child was constantly sticking pebbles up her nose when she was a toddler, requiring several frantic trips to the doctor. Yeah, they know some other stuff, too.
8) The reading public — rather, the web-browsing public — knows a lot about me, or could know a lot about me, since any monkey with a keyboard could end up randomly typing my name into Google, which would reveal every dumb thing I’ve ever said in print or on TV, plus every nasty thing, true or untrue, other people have ever said about me in print or on TV. They might also inadvertently confuse me with some of the other Rosa Brookses out there, who are statistically likely to also have said some dumb things at some point in their lives, and they might blame me not only for my own views and words but for the views and words of my Internet doppelgangers.
9) Facebook knows about me. Facebook knows about the idiotic status posts I put up eight years ago and hastily deleted, and the unflattering pictures of me taken by other people, even though I untagged them. I think. Facebook somehow knows where I go, because even when I don’t tell Facebook where I am, sometimes other people tell Facebook. And Facebook tells all its friends everything I tell my friends.
10) Amazon.com knows about me. I buy some weird stuff. That copy of The Anarchist Cookbook might easily be misconstrued, especially in conjunction with the Ninja costume and the survival gear. Shit. Who are those people who work for Amazon?
11) Oh, God, Google knows all about me. Google knows what I search for, literally and figuratively. I swear, those searches — you know, those ones — were purely journalistic in nature. And Google has my email, going back over a decade. Google not only has the full email record of various marital and familial disputes, it also has all those draft emails I never sent because I decided they were too intemperate and embarrassing. It has my email correspondence with banks and lawyers. If some cunning Google employee wanted to, she could publicly humiliate me, steal my identity, steal my money, and ruin my life. With ease. When did I decide I wanted Google to know all my secrets? Hey, did you know that about 10 percent of Google employees don’t even work in the United States? They’re foreigners! And they know all my secrets.
12) Fourteen-year-old hackers in Estonia and military hackers in China know all about me. At least, they could know all about me if they were interested (probably they aren’t). If they can hack into tech companies and Pentagon computer systems, I’m betting they can hack into my Verizon and Google accounts, too.
13) The U.S. government? You say the U.S. government might know what numbers I call and how long I spend on the phone? And the NSA can monitor my Internet use if it has some reason to suspect I’m a terrorist? Get in line, guys. Every third person on the street knows more about me than you do.
Here’s the truth: We all gave up most of our information privacy long ago, so it’s a little hard to see why the fact that the U.S. government is collecting large quantities of phone and Internet data should cost us any more sleep. We Americans apparently have no problem with letting unknown numbers of unelected employees in vast, faceless, for-profit multinational corporations collect and use our personal information, all for the purpose of making more money, but God forbid that officials in our democratically elected government should try to collect some of that same information and use it to prevent terrorist attacks!
Our collective outrage makes no sense to me. After all, the executive branch is at least moderately democratically accountable, which is more than I can say for Google, as much as I love it. And as President Obama noted, these FBI and NSA data collection programs have been vetted by all three branches of government. These programs may be unnecessary. They may even be stupid. But there’s no reason to think they’re inherently "undemocratic."
And sure, the government’s not exactly being transparent, but neither are the multitudes of for-profit companies that are surveiling me in one way or another. What systems does Google have in place to make sure employees don’t use your private information to blackmail you, defraud you, steal from you, or destroy your life in some other creative way? I don’t know, but I’m guessing they’re weaker than the analogous systems set in place by government agencies.
Government data collection, as such, isn’t really the problem — at least not in a world in which practically everyone is collecting data on practically everyone else. The problem, insofar as there is one, is not a privacy problem at all, but an accountability problem, and we reasonably expect our government to be more accountable than corporations. Given the current lack of transparency, we don’t know what rules govern who can see what data, under what circumstances, for what purposes, and with what consequences. We don’t know if this sweeping data collection has led to mistakes or abuses that have harmed innocent people, and we don’t know what recourse an innocent person would have if harmed in some way.
It’s reasonable to worry about those questions and to expect government officials to offer a little more clarity. (And, no, this won’t somehow "tip off" the bad guy
s; the bad guys will assume the U.S. government’s lying and doing far more than it admits anyway.) If there are innocent individuals who have suffered some real injury as a result of these government data-collection programs, there needs to be a mechanism to remedy the damage and impose appropriate consequences on government wrongdoers. If these data collection practices (or any similar past practices) lead to innocent people getting stuck on no-fly lists, or getting harassed by federal agents, or ending up wrongly detained, there should be a prompt, transparent, and fair means for them to challenge their treatment, see the supposed evidence against them, and get the problem fixed.
The mere fact that large quantities of data are collected by the government isn’t an outrage in and of itself, however, and it shouldn’t be any more troubling than the fact that countless non-governmental entities also collect (or can gain access to) our "private" data. We should worry about how the data are used, not whether it’s collected.
Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.