Most news reporters and law makers were shocked when Newspapers like the British Guardian and the US’s Washington Post got hold of seemingly creditable stories the United States government was conducting secret programs that collected, potentially listened to American citizens phone calls virtually demanding all call logs from leading phone company Verizon. The knowledge of perceived intrusions into law abiding citizens’ privacy didn’t stop there going on to reveal supposedly massive collections and monitoring of online traffic potentially reading your e-mails, viewing your photos. Then we learned the identity of the alleged leaker a high school dropout at a government post in Hawaii who was breaking the law just by getting his hands on the information he had; even his family begging him to stop as the secrets unfortunately keep coming from spying on allies phone conversations at the G8 summit in 2009 to the potential hacking of China by U.S. intelligence. As Edward Snowden has reportedly fled to China and officials are looking to file charges against him, NSA’s (National Security Agency) top brass are left in hot water answering questions about just how these programs work, what they do and do not collect and are left to prove to both fellow government members along with the American people it is absolutely necessary for them to gather, have access to this information. But is it all what the hype has made it out to be; more and more questions surface surrounding does Mr. Snowden, did he, have the access he claims? Does he have clouded motivations for both coming forward and disclosing his accusations for which many are still awaiting proof?
At the same time questions are circulating as to what the heck our government thinks it’s doing with our private information, entities like Microsoft and Facebook disclosed the scope of requests made by the government for internet records; numbers in the thousands not millions a mere fraction of users according to the internet giants, far less than some expected it to be. Simultaneously NSA personnel testifying on Capitol Hill were quick to say no one is listening in on your phone calls, reading your e-mail that the only people being “spied on” are individuals outside the U.S. in terrorist hot spots like Yemen. If you are a U.S. citizen and either one of the above are being monitored, it is A- because you have done something credible to cause them to suspect you as a terrorist or B- the locations of your phone and internet correspondence lead them to believe you are in contact with a terrorist individual, group or network. Those are the only criteria under which your phone is tapped, your e-mails actually read; both actions still requiring a court issued warrant. Added to the clarification were a shocking 50+ plots worldwide that were prevented using this particular counter terrorism method including the men arrested for a plan to attack New York subways, a plot caught in its infancy to blow up Wall Street, which immediately caused people to sit up and take notice. Also presented in the congressional testimony is the idea if we tell terrorists all the ways we intend to come after them; we will no longer be able to use specified tools because they know about them. A common since approach to national security, if you ask most people, in the era punctuated by terrorist ingenuity demonstrated from shoe and underwear bombs, dubious liquids forcing us to limit our carry on toiletries, drinks even baby formula to X ounces, terrorist videos showcasing just how devoted followers are, so committed to bringing down a U.S. plane, known land mark they are giving tutorials on how to hide explosives in your body cavities, including the rectum. What information we give to the public and thus to anyone with an internet connection, the ability to track a news feed is an important point considering both the sheer numbers of terror plots, the near misses, the tools we have and the things still slipping through our grasp, especially when put alongside the lack of staff and the practical begging by these departments entrusted with keeping us safe not to cut funding, to please find more trained people, people to train for these jobs. Probably a factor in how the high school dropout Snowden became a government contractor trained around such highly classified material. Neither is this the first time government officials have had to have such a conversation with the American people; nearly identical conversations were had about why certain details were not given to the public during both the beginnings of the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, because reporters were literally asking about targets scheduled to be hit wondering why they weren’t being told. Reactions that are a direct result of scandals like Watergate fueling the notion everything has to be transparent or it’s shady, information disclosure has to be immediate, instantaneous or it is being willfully hidden for a nefarious purpose, but like strategic targets in war, we aren’t being told said information so the wrong people don’t hear it, so the government doesn’t have to contend with 300 million people jumping to the wrong conclusions and can just focus on our protection.
Relevant is who isn’t going to jail; political pundits and persons outspokenly critical of the government in print, on the news even in the most irrational and illogical ways are not suddenly being served with arrest warrants; despite blogs, twitter feeds and even extreme religious views attached to social hot buttons such as abortion, birth control, gay rights, immigration, other religions, they remain free to spew their xenophobic, homophobic, counterproductive ideologies until they make threats or violate the law. No matter how dubious, how yellow their journalism happens to be, how out of the mainstream, how intellectually off the mark, how potentially psychologically damaging to the general public they may be, they still remain able to operate under the right of free speech. Additionally, no one is coming to your home to question you about an accidental click during a Google search where you mistakenly clicked on the thing in Arabic that began blasting music or something more sinister out of your computer speakers and you quickly return to said search, click on movie link above it you truly wanted to watch. No one is going after the high school student, college class take or blogger who again Googles the name/spelling of a terrorist organization for a class project, research paper or op ed. piece. Key too is the ricin letters sent to the president and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg; when it was discovered the Elvis impersonator originally linked to the case turned out to have no clue and nothing to do with it, he was let go. Eventually the letters were traced to a small time TV star turned unstable activist currently slated to undergo a psychological exam. A teen accused of possession of child pornography and later forced to register as a sex offender, even though charges were dropped, profiled by Dateline was treated so A- because child porn was found on the family computer he was last known to be using and B-prosecutors ignored the forensic computer specialist, that after analyzing said computer, clearly proved the illegal material was sent to him not generated by him, present as a result of him going to a website, chat room or in any was soliciting what was found. In fact legal proceedings involving minors and pornography have only gotten worse as we misapply existing laws to pictures of girlfriends, pictures willingly taken by the teen in question. Even the man facing jail time over the e-mails he read on the family computer generated by his wife to others resulted from 2 things, his work as a computer tech and what he did with the information he obtained; i.e. alerting the biological father of his step child his mother had returned to an abusive relationship then seeking custody of the child they had together concerned she was taking said child on night visits to this man while intending to have sex with him. What’s not in evidence pertaining to the NSA “spying” program speaks loudly too; prime example, no indications naturalized U.S. citizens from red flagged parts of the world are being targeted by this program, no smoking gun pointing to immigrants from any part of the world gaining undue attention of the U.S. government until they have already engaged in suspicious activity. No one is rounding them up to jail or deport them based on calls simply made to family that happen to be from Middle Eastern country X, Muslim county X.
Further to be considered is how many times we are already being surveilled and by whom; how many video cameras are we on daily as we go to a convenience store, fill our gas tanks, use an ATM or visit a bank, look for a new outfit, the perfect pair of shoes? How many bystanders end up in photo and video courtesy our populations use of smart, camera and video phones, something we usually hear about when it helps solve a criminal case, when police ask people with possible video of an incident to come forward? How much of our personal information is already out there whether we freely post it on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube via status updates, potentially incriminating photos, videos everything from likely to get us in trouble with our bosses to land us in jail. Soccer mom turned Islamic radical, the self-proclaimed Jihad Jane was caught this way thanks to her own YouTube video; now imagine if no one was looking. Maybe it’s our online shopping habits putting our name, address, credit card and phone numbers into cyberspace; how many of us think to opt out of being listed in the phonebook now possessing a digital, online counterpart? Anything you do has the potential to grab the attention of someone in our technology age; frequent user of Google, use a search engine to find directions, a good restaurant, even a babysitter, then advertisers are already aware of what you are looking for and tailoring ad displays on the top, bottom and side of the page to you and your interests. Scary thought huh; the long and short of it, we don’t have, haven’t had for decades, the level of privacy we think we do. Nor was the irony lost on the older generation that the Twitter and YouTube, social networking generation, post every aspect of your lives online generation were the one complaining the loudest when it was discover the government had a program like this; the young people we have to remind constantly the internet isn’t private and the photos you post, the video you display will be there forever were the ones chiefly up in arms over the government’s access to phone and e-mail records. Yes there is something to be said for choice, what you choose or don’t to put online, to give to all aspects of the public and yes there is a lot to be said for placing clear restrictions of government collection of personal information, intrusions into the privacy we do and should hold sacred in a free society, but asserting the government doesn’t have the right to collect locations to and from of phone calls, collect location data regarding e-mail and other electronic communication between people in flagged parts world and U.S. citizens is tantamount to suddenly outlawing the security camera for anything that is not a federal or local government building, something that would only serve to spike crime and let criminals do more damage. You also have realistic legal means to live “off the grid,” you don’t have to have a telephone, or can use a landline that requires a court order to tap/trace, alternative energy devices can keep you from having utility bills, you don’t have to have internet, you don’t have to use it to look up information, no one is forcing you to create a Facebook page, YouTube channel or Twitter account, all things you control the content of if you have them. Let us also remember people caught in this way were guilty of doing something grievously wrong not getting slightly creative on their taxes, not dodging parking tickets.
Media characterization of the “NSA spying scandal” is a whole other matter; it was the media more than the program who put it into Americans heads the government was listening to your phone conversations, reading your e-mail at will and at random, facts not in evidence. No, the true breach of security, safety and trust wasn’t keeping the American people in the dark about all ways we fight terrorism and possible threats, it wasn’t that government officials dared keep track of suspected terror activity foreign or home grown, it was in allowing Edward Snowden to be groomed for the job he was to eventually take over without competently conducting the proper background, personality and psychological testing. It was allowing Edward Snowden to have access to what he had access to without sufficient monitoring of his behavior to make sure he didn’t do exactly what he ended up doing, outing all the governments dirty laundry not only to the public but to our allies as well as our enemies. Argument says he could have come by his recently disclosed extreme beliefs on right, wrong, justice the American way compounded by his frustration with our undeniably dysfunctional government after discovering information gained during his training, but listening to his girlfriends’ father speak to Good Morning America about what could have possibly made him do this, it reads more like such thoughts, feelings were always a part of him perhaps brought out by the material he was exposed to. Translation had he gone through the proper screening processes these things would have been brought to light and he either would have been disqualified as a job candidate or appropriately monitored so his superiors were aware of his leanings before there was an international incident. Subsequently undermining Mr. Snowden’s credibility he honestly fled to China reportedly saying he had faith in their rule of law, the nation with countless years of human rights violations and he wants to defect there; similarly he outed supposed US spying on China as if that would come as a shock to the American people when every few months we hear stories about Chinese infiltration into business, printers suddenly printing in Chinese, obvious evidence pertaining to theft of intellectual property, a military plane belonging to them that looks strikingly like a new US version hardly out of testing. Providing Mr. Snowden is telling the truth and not plum crazy as one former CIA person described him, we are monitoring them to see what they are getting their hands on, how they are doing so in an effort to stop them, bar them from sensitive material, in other words defending ourselves.
And critics may be correct that those mentioned by the FBI during the related hearing could have been caught by other means, that the Wall Street plot was very much still on the drawing board, yet isn’t that when we want to catch terror threats, before they harm people, before they take lives, before they cause untold thousands, millions, billions even trillions in property, business and public building damage? The skeptic on CNN who seemed to think he had highlighted a great distinction, provided irrefutable proof we don’t need “dragnet surveillance” by somewhat indignantly stating the first man arrested in the Wall Street foiled plot did not go to jail for being its mastermind, participating in in depth planning, but rather for giving money to Al-Qaeda, was actually readily proving we may well need more of this not less, because doing so constitutes treason or a related charge. God only knows what Al-Qaeda was able to do with the money they were sent by a born and raised American citizen, a more alarming thought than anything else outside the fact where the plan was in its development matters far less than they had a plan to begin with. Considering the brothers Tsarnaev what was there, what was missed and the end result, we need all the tools we can get unless what we want is a larger body count, more victories for Al-Qaeda, Hamas or the lone delusional terrorist. Not to mention this program was not completely secret it was known to the top heads of committees required to be informed of such an operation; it was brought to the attention of legal authorities and deemed both lawful and constitutional. And there is too always the chance Mr. Snowden is exaggerating, an extremist al-a the tea party as opposed to radical Islam or more simply psychologically unbalanced; either way our privacy remains as intact as it ever has been since social media came on the scene.