Government spying pales
in comparison with the damage
we’re inflicting upon ourselves
BBC World Service desk editor Thomas B. shows his credential during our chance encounter in London on June 3. We have discussed the topic of privacy and monitoring in detail since then. © SGE, Inc. All rights reserved.
THE CURRENT DEBATE over the Obama administration’s alleged spying on the emails, telephone calls and other electronic communications of Americans and foreigners raises the vital question of the nature of personal privacy the Internet era.
But it is certainly not news that the National Security Administration is monitoring us on a massive scale.
It was first reported in a groundbreaking scoop by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau in their December 2005 New York Times story: Bush Secretly Lifted Some Limits on Spying in U.S. After 9/11, Officials Say
“President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States,” they reported, “to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.”
We later learned the identity of the anonymous source used in this article; he was a patriot, working in the San Francisco office of AT&T, and was an eye witness when the monitoring equipment was installed.
The current brouhaha over government spying on us, however, pales in comparison to what many of us are doing voluntarily, and mostly unwittingly, to ourselves.
MILLIONS OF INTERNET USERS are surrendering their privacy by revealing intimate details of their lives on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and innumerable others.
The New York Times scoop that broke the news in 2005 about NSA spying on electronic communications of Americans and foreigners. Click image to read the story.
I have been teaching this to my students for years. And, indeed, I admonish them to exercise great caution when posting anything online, sending emails, even making routine telephone calls.
In just the last few days, I have been having an email conversation on this topic with a desk editor at the BBC News World Service.
After receiving an email from Thomas B., who used his BBC email account, my response contained the following:
“I must confess that I am alarmed by the tiny print at the bottom [of your email]:
“Please note that the BBC monitors e-mails sent or received.”
Now, private companies are obviously completely different from governments. They clearly have a legal right to protect themselves.
But what about us?
My email to Thomas continued:
“I was very conscious of the closed circuit television cameras I noticed all along old Compton Street [in London.] British society is possibly the most monitored in the world.
“Now I certainly understand the need for security especially after all the recent terrorist bombings, but don’t you feel that your privacy has been surrendered?
I certainly felt that way.”
A few days later Thomas replied:
“To some extent I can understand your concern about that disclaimer at the bottom of my email.
“However: nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, is private on/via the Internet, be it email, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter (or Twatter as I like to call it) or what have you.
“The U.S. government has once again just delivered proof of that and this time with a very impressive bang, I might add.”
FROM SOMEONE who has been in the news business for many years, and who has an international perspective, this is a terrible indictment of U.S. government policy – and all of us Internet users.
If this is what editors at the BBC think of us in the U.S., we are in serious trouble.
But it is not just the government’s fault.
Those who are voluntarily surrendering their right to privacy with their Facebook posts and Tweets, should now be aware of what they are doing.
It is time for a national debate on the meaning of privacy. But, the editorial in today’s editions of The New York Times, “A Real Debate on Surveillance” is aimed in the wrong direction.
The technology is moving far too quickly for legislation to keep pace.
It is up to the individual. We are all alone in this.
This post is dedicated to Terry S. – with thanks.