This PRISM spying thing is interesting for me because so many factors are at play (listed below in no particular order):

1. What motivates a whistleblower? Edward Snowden is the new Bradley Manning (and we see how that ended).  The motivation behind leaking this kind of information and the trouble it causes for you is fascinating.  Would I leak if given a similar opportunity?  Probably not; I like my life too much.  Would you?

It seems to me to be a case of self-sacrifice, where the whistleblower is potentially making the world a better place for us, while at the same time ruining their own life.  Questionable move.

2. The government has to spy on us.  The current whistleblowing, while creating a useful dialogue about freedom vs security, will not change government eavesdropping now or in the future (the program will simply move further into the shadows if shut down).  Think about it from the government’s perspective:  1) We’re already creating all the data for them (emails, phone calls, facebook, cell phone GPS, etc.) and the technology exists to gather it.  It would almost be a missed opportunity, from the government’s perspective, if they didn’t take that final step of collecting it. 2) If the US government isn’t spying on us, then some other government (or organization) will be, and the US government will not accept that kind of information asymmetry.  Would we want our government at a disadvantage?

3. It is safe to assume we are being watched all the time by multiple parties.  I would not assume the US government is the only one with this kind of program.  If they are today, they won’t always be.  Information of all kinds is being created about us at an increasing rate, and so organizations will be increasingly tempted to use it.

4. How is government spying all that different than marketers or financiers? Marketers  know what I want to buy before I do.  Financier formulas give me a credit rating that is likely more accurate at predicting my ability to service debt than even I would know if you asked me.  In short, the world of commerce not only knows most things about me already; they often know MORE than I know about myself.  And, really, how much “spying” does the government need to do?  Many people simply publish their lives on Facebook voluntarily.

5. The government is collecting 99.9% junk, and the program is a waste of time. This will be the world’s largest database of people doing regular, boring stuff that ever existed. To separate signal (some terrorist) from noise (our comings and goings) is an intellectually stimulating but largely fruitless endeavor.  I would be highly suspicious of any claim that actionable intelligence is coming out of the surveillance (although I am sure that claim will be made).

We had mountains of data about the finance system and years of effort in creating sophisticated models, and no one could predict the financial crisis or housing bust.  Do we now think we’re going to drum up some model that can find, or even significantly contribute to finding, terrorists (if that is even the program’s real/primary use)?

6. Do terrorists really carry registered cell phones, and put “I’m a terrorist!” on Facebook? Perhaps a few really crappy terrorists.  In general, it is beyond me what the government hopes to learn of significance.  I do bet they could catch a bunch of drug dealers and petty criminals who aren’t sophisticated enough to prevent leaving a digital trail.  Certainly though the government doesn’t need any more help catching drug dealers/users?  The jails are already overflowing.

7. Convenience trumps Freedom. I think most of us are OK with having our every move logged. Like I said, we are voluntarily doing it mostly anyway.  We “log” into every site or service we use and they “log” our information.  We do that because it creates something convenient for us (it is nice that Amazon saves my info and predicts my likes).  We can simply not buy cell phones if we don’t want our location constantly monitored, but most of us value the convenience of driving directions more than the freedom we give up.

8. The Internet does not promote a free and open society.  This is exactly the opposite of what we’d like to think and have been told.  Our digital universe (including the Internet) creates the most effective surveillance state that could ever be conceived.

9. Cloud Computer is inherently insecure. If we create the data and upload it centrally somewhere for a service to manage…then we are volunteering our data to the government, and likely others as well.  I think, ultimately, people value convenience over security, and so “the cloud” has a big future…it is just a big future in which privacy is marginalized and our mistakes are recorded in perpetuity.

10. Spying is being automated.  Can former spies apply for unemployment?  No longer does a spy have to sit in a cafe in Damascus and eavesdrop on conversations; the conversations are being recorded.  I guess no industry is immune to automation.

11. Who Watches the Watchers? Even though I believe this kind of surveillance is a waste of time for finding terrorists, I am strongly against it.  Even though our lives are incredibly boring and full of non-events, with this much data about our comings and goings it would not be difficult to find “other” uses for it.  There is no need for any organization to have that kind of power.

If the government would submit themselves to be watched in the same way they are watching us…then I might see a moral justification for the program.  They can have their privacy but we can’t have ours?  That seems unfair in a nation where no one is supposed to be above the law.

For those who would invoke “national security” as the justification for the information asymmetry, I submit my last comment:

12) The response to 9/11 is enormously out of line with the event. Is no one brave enough to lead with, “Despite the tragedy, it simply is not worth all this.”?  Preserving our way of life is not disrespecting the dead.  It is what the dead would have wanted for us, and thus is the highest form of respect we can pay.

2,993 people died on September 11, 2001 as a result of a terrorist attack.

4,488 US soldiers  have died in Iraq since 9/11…. Certainly we have not saved 4,488 US lives in prevented terrorism since that day? We’ve killed more of our own soldiers in response to 9/11 than died on 9/11.

Over 1 million Iraqis have died due to US military activity since 9/11.  If there wasn’t a lot of dislike of US before, there is now.  As much as some Iraqis appreciate the liberation from Saddam, if the deal is “to save us you must kill us”, I’m not sure that is a great bargain.  We’re kicking the hornets nest in the Middle East.

Here are some other sobering statistics:

Over 5,000 people per year die in the US from texting while driving accidents…44,000 per year in car accidents in general.  47,000 per year die in the US from hospital/doctor errors.  24,000 per year die of lightning strikes (globally).  No one is declaring war on any of these things….despite causing more death per year (recurring) than 9/11 (a one time event).

6,800 people die per day in the US from all causes.  4292 days have passed since 9/11/2011, so 29,185,600 people have died overall in that time period.   The tragic deaths of 9/11 account for .02% of all deaths since that day. How are the other 99.98% of deaths any less tragic? Why no passionate response for non-terrorist deaths (some of which could likely be addressed without such a draconian response)?

What is the justification for the response to 9/11?

It certainly can’t be lives saved, since we are killing more than we are saving.

It can’t be freedom, since we are giving up (in civil liberties) more than we are preserving.

It can’t be safety, since there are far better, less invasive ways to make us safer.

What is the justification?

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