All Over But the Shouting

There’s a saying in sports when it’s clear that things have been decided, when one team is far ahead and the other team, no matter how talented, can’t do a damned thing right. Some sportscaster, pretending to be insightful, will tell everyone it’s all over but the shouting – but that’s obvious. That sportscaster is just providing official media confirmation of what everyone already knows – nothing’s going to change now. The fans head for the exits, to beat the traffic – there’s no point in watching any more of this. Everything is locked in. All the trick plays have been played. Those guys out there on the court, or the field, or the diamond or rink, will keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing – each player has a talent and makes the most of it, even if the results vary widely. It’s what they do, but the game was over long ago. Why stay and watch?

Diehard fans and students of the game – those fascinated by technique and style, in the abstract – are the only ones who stick around, but they’re a strange lot. Normal folks move on, as it seems people have moved on from the new domestic surveillance scandal. Yes, the government has been spying on us all, building a massive database of everyone’s phone records and also figuring out a way to track absolutely all online activity in real time – scary stuff – but that’s pretty much what Google and Apple and AT&T and Verizon do every single day, not to mention Facebook. They want to know everything, to sell us stuff. The government wants to keep us safe. Those who worry about privacy rights, and that Fourth Amendment stuff about illegal search and seizure, have raised holy hell, and those who think assembling more dots, so our guys can connect a few dots for a change and this time stop the bad guys, have raised holy hell right back. There is a case for mass surveillance – a database of national communication activity – and this Edward Snowden, who spilled the beans on the NSA spying on Americans, if that’s what keeping phone logs is, is a traitor, or at least a criminal – a bad guy. The other side says Snowden is a hero – for revealing the awful things our government is actually doing, like Daniel Ellsberg once did. Others try to split the difference and see Snowden as a self-serving narcissist, whatever he did, and, inevitably, the ACLU is now suing the NSA – so all the possible positions have been staked out. For a review of what’s been said so far, see, in sequence, Compelling Distractions then The Oddest Spook and then Borrowed Outrage – all the arguments, one way or the other, laid out in excruciating detail.

Now the story has stalled. Most everything that could be said has been said. No one’s changing their mind now. It’s all over but the shouting, and there was that:

Rep. Peter King (R-NY) on Wednesday elaborated on his call for journalists to be punished if they report on classified information, singling out The Guardian reporter at the center of the firestorm over top secret National Security Agency surveillance programs.

During an interview on Fox News Channel, King made it clear that he was referring to The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald when he called for prosecution of reporters who publish classified information.

“I’m talking about Greenwald. Greenwald, not only did he disclose this information, he has said he has names of CIA agents and assets around the world and threatening to disclose that,” King said. “The last time that was done in this country, we saw the CIA station chief murdered in Greece. No right is absolute and even the press has certain restrictions. I think it should be very targeted and very selective and certainly a very rare exception. But in this case, when you have someone who’s disclosed secrets like this and threatens to release more, then to me, yes, there has to be, legal action should be taken against him. This is a very unusual case with life and death implications for Americans.”

King may be exaggerating the damage and danger here, so this was inevitable – Glenn Greenwald to Pete King: Bring It On – where the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent chats with Greenwald:

“We did not want to just go and arbitrarily disclose things for the sake of harming the United States,” he said. “He wanted to trigger a debate and inform people. Given that he has access to incredible amounts of top secret information, if his intent at all were to harm the U.S., he could have disclosed enormous amounts of info that would have endangered all kinds of people. That’s the opposite of his intentions, and his actions prove that.”

Greenwald said he has spoken with lawyers about whether he is at legal risk. “I have spoken with lawyers about representing me in the event that I need one,” he said. He added he has not dismissed the possibility that he really may face prosecution, given the Obama administration’s aggressive prosecution of leak cases, and given the targeting of Fox News’ James Rosen, who was named a “co-conspirator” in a legal brief. “It would be irrational for me to dismiss the possibility,” he said.

But he did add that he doesn’t really expect to face prosecution: “We know that as journalists we have the right to report on what the government is doing,” he said, adding that “I can’t imagine that anyone other than Peter King” thinks otherwise.

There’s this too:

“I would think that even the most extremist Democrats on national security would be offended at the idea that journalists would be threatened with prosecution for doing their jobs,” Greenwald said. “If Democrats don’t stand for the principle, that journalists can’t be prosecuted for doing this, then what do they stand for?”

Greenwald added, however, that the threat of prosecution would only encourage him to continue: “It’s not going to deter me or limit me or constrain me in any way from exercising my core First Amendment rights.”

It really is all over but the shouting. We have now officially entered the shouting-phase. Dig in. Hold your ground, and shout – no matter what the outcome.

That had to happen. The underlying issue was too stark, even if few drilled down to it – the issue of privacy. What should you be able to hide from the government, no matter what the national security implications, or from big-business for that matter? No one even knows what the word means anymore, something that Ross Douthat, the younger of the New York Times’ two resident conservative columnists, says has shifted:

The motto “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” – or, alternatively, “abandon all privacy, ye who enter here” – might as well be stamped on every smartphone and emblazoned on every social media log-in page. As the security expert Bruce Schneier wrote recently, it isn’t that the Internet has been penetrated by the surveillance state; it’s that the Internet, in effect, is a surveillance state.

Anxiety over this possibility has been laced into online experience since the beginning. … But in the early days of the dot-com era, what people found most striking about online life was how anonymous it seemed – all those chat rooms and comment sections, aliases and handles and screen names. A famous New Yorker cartoon depicted two canines contemplating a computer, as one promised the other, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

This ideal of anonymity still persists in some Internet communities. But in many ways, the online world has turned out to be less private than the realm of flesh and blood. In part, that’s because most Internet users don’t want to cloak themselves in pseudonyms. Instead, they communicate in online spaces roughly the way they would in a room full of their closest friends, and use texts and e-mails the way they would once have used a letter or a phone call – which means, inevitably, that they are much more exposed – to strangers and enemies, ex-lovers and ex-friends – than they would have been before their social lives migrated online.

What is the right to privacy of which Snowden and Greenwald speak? No one wants it, but we have not yet developed a way to talk about:

The problem is that we have only one major point of reference when we debate what these trends might mean: the 20th-century totalitarian police state, whose every intrusion on privacy was in the service of tyrannical one-party rule. That model is useful for teasing out how authoritarian regimes will try to harness the Internet’s surveillance capabilities, but America isn’t about to turn into East Germany with Facebook pages.

For us, the age of surveillance is more likely to drift toward what Alexis de Tocqueville described as “soft despotism” or what the Forbes columnist James Poulos has dubbed “the pink police state.” Our government will enjoy extraordinary, potentially tyrannical powers, but most citizens will be monitored without feeling persecuted or coerced.

So we are where we are:

In this atmosphere, radicalism and protest will seem riskier, paranoia will be more reasonable, and conspiracy theories will proliferate. But because genuinely dangerous people will often be pre-empted or more swiftly caught, the privacy-for-security swap will seem like a reasonable trade-off to many Americans – especially when there is no obvious alternative short of disconnecting from the Internet entirely.

For a technical view of this, see Brendan Greeley:

Metadata – information about a thing, rather than the thing itself – has always been valuable. But collecting it used to be thankless and expensive. Think of the actual physical index cards that libraries used to organize in card catalogues. Each card displayed author, title, Dewey Decimal number – the metadata for one book. Someone actually had to type and amend that card by hand, which constrained the metadata that any library could reasonably collect. A limited number of subject categories for the book, for example. No chapter headings.

Yahoo’s maps of the Web were akin to a card catalogue, ordering Web pages one by one into categories, a human decision each time. Google improved on this by treating incoming links as metadata, a way to order the importance of a page. Then the tools of the Web flipped. In the early 2000s, new Web services allowed us to enter our own information: to blog, to tweet, to tag, to like. In each case, we created metadata about ourselves. This had always been valuable, but suddenly we had an incentive to write our own card catalogue entries. In return for a community, or even just a personalized stream of music, we happily provided metadata. This is the basic transaction behind every free Web service.

That’s the problem:

This creates a tremendous temptation for even the saintliest NSA analyst. Data centers and mathematicians with security clearances are expensive, but every additional bit of metadata is now close to free. The data state has expanded not because the people in Washington have become more craven or callous, or even necessarily because American voters are more scared of terrorists. If the price of a good drops, demand for it increases. When you’re no longer limited by the number of G-men you can put on the street, why not surveil everyone?

Welcome to the new world. Jacob Bacharach sees why there’s this conflict now:

Educators and employers are constantly yelling that you young people have an affirmative responsibility not to post anything where a teacher or principal or, worst of all, boss or potential boss might find it, which gets the ethics of the situation precisely backwards. It isn’t your sister’s obligation to hide her diary; it’s yours not to read it. Your boyfriend shouldn’t have to close all his browser windows and hide his cell phone; you ought to refrain from checking his history and reading his texts. But, says the Director of Human Resources and the Career Counselor, social media is public; you’re putting it out there. Yes, well, then I’m sure you won’t mind if I join you guys at happy hour with this flip-cam and a stenographer. Privacy isn’t the responsibility of individuals to squirrel away secrets; it’s the decency of individuals to leave other’s lives alone.

This will be hard to work out:

At some point, employers will have to face up to the unavoidability of hiring people whose first Google image is a shirtless selfie. Demographics will demand it. They’ll have to get used to it just as surely as they’ll have to get used to nose rings and, god help us, neck tattoos. It’s a shame, though, that it’ll be compulsory and reluctant. We should no more have to censor our electronic conversations than whisper in a restaurant. I suspect that as my own generation and the one after it finally manage to boot the Boomers from their tenacious hold on the steering wheel of this civilization that they’ve piloted ineluctably and inexorably toward the shoals, all the while whining about the lazy passengers, we will better understand this, and be better, and more understanding. And I hope that the kids today will refuse to heed the warnings and insist on making a world in which what is actually unacceptable is to make one’s public life little more than series of polite and carefully maintained lies.

Ross Douthat takes this rant and runs with it:

This is an eloquent statement of how many people, especially my age and younger, think about their online lives, and how they want others (including institutions as well as individuals) to approach what they share on social media. Certainly the moral case Bacharach makes is a potent one: An employer snooping on employees’ Facebook pages, an ex-boyfriend forwarding intimate photos from past relationships to his friends, and yes, a government sifting your social media data are all engaged in something far more indecent than the online behavior they’re exploiting. And the society he hopes for is one that most of today’s young people will probably experience: A world where everyone treats Facebook the way they treat a happy hour with friends is a world where the individual costs of online sharing will be minimized (because everyone is doing it), and where most people’s scantily-clad selfies and dumb tweets won’t hurt their employment prospects, let alone attract any interest from the government.

But it’s still the case that if your boss or your ex-boyfriend or your friendly neighborhood NSA did have some reason to exploit your texts and tweets and emails and selfies, they would have means and opportunities that no previous era of social interaction has afforded. And that’s what’s missing from Bacharach’s accounting: An acknowledgment that the use of social media is inherently different from offline forms of socializing, not in its content or intent, but in the kind of power it automatically cedes to other people and institutions, to use and exploit as they choose.

The technology changes everything:

You can see this in the analogies he chooses, to restaurant dinners and happy hours. If you go to happy hour with your pals, those pals and maybe a nosy bartender are the only people who can exploit whatever happens there, and if somebody showed up with a flipcam and notebook you’d notice the weirdness of the situation quickly enough and alter your behavior accordingly. Likewise if you go on a date to a nice restaurant; you’d start censoring yourself pretty quickly if the couple at the next table started writing down everything you said.

If you hold forth with your pals on Gmail or Facebook, though, the flipcam-and-notebook combination is built into the platform you’re using, and it belongs to your corporate hosts: You’re giving them a semi-permanent record of what you’ve said and done, and however unethical it might be for them to exploit it, sell it, or allow the government to access it, the power to do so nonetheless exists.

The only warning Douthat can offer is this:

A truly moral person, a truly moral corporation, and a truly moral government would not exploit the kind of information that people now share with one another on the internet. But it is not sufficient to simply say, with Bacharach and many others who have come of age with the internet, that privacy is “the decency … to leave other’s lives alone,” and demand that the world and all its powers live up to that ideal. Privacy is also the wisdom to recognize that not all peers and powers are actually decent, and that one’s exposure should perhaps be limited accordingly. And it’s precisely because the ease and convenience of internet communication inclines us all (myself included) to forget or compromise this wisdom – or else pretend to we’re abandoning it out of some higher commitment to honesty and openness…

Yes, but information wants to be free – Stewart Brand, who, founded the Whole Earth Catalog said so. Technology can be liberating, not oppressive, or so he told Steve Wozniak back in 1984:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

That’s the underlying tension here. This Snowden guy freed a lot of information, information about the government gathering and collating all the information, about information, that was floating around freely anyway. They don’t call this the Information Age for nothing. The cost of getting information out – all of it, about everything – has dropped to near-zero now, so we’re in a fix. We think it’s pretty cool that all that stuff all out there – the whole world is at our fingertips, in detail, instantly – but we also want our privacy, which we can’t quite define and we don’t seem to protect from those who probably aren’t actually decent, because doing that might make our lives narrow and cramped, and boring, and isolated.

The NSA domestic surveillance scandal may be a minor matter here – something that’s all over but the shouting. Snowden may be a traitor, or a hero, depending on your politics – expect a few more weeks of shouting about that. There’s more going on here. Amazing technology, at little or no cost at all, just bit us in the ass. Now what?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to All Over But the Shouting

  1. Rick says:

    It’s not all over but for the shouting, of course. This is just a lull. I imagine more will come out, probably soon.

    For example, all those called-in bomb threats yesterday, supposedly from the Taliban? Will the NSA nail the callers? And if so, could it actually have been just a test of our surveillance systems? We may yet hear more about this.

    I love the fact that Jacob Bacharach thinks he and his generation are smarter than the boomers. He seems to personify those Gen-Xers (or Gen-whatevers) I complained about in the early days of web “cookies”, whose attitudes about the rights of privacy seemed so much looser than my generation but who now seem so offended that someone would actually make use of all that information made available through technology.

    I know I, as an employer, would not hesitate to refuse to hire someone with a nose ring or neck tattoo, or who posted on his Facebook page “selfies” (I love that word) of himself having sex with farm animals. Someday, maybe labor will be so scarce that employers will be compelled to hire just anyone at all willing to do the job, but that’s a question of supply-and-demand of labor, not one of the assumed moral constraints of privacy.

    And in the meantime, especially in this job market, we ain’t there yet, so if Bacharach happens to be job hunting, he’d be wise to be careful about what he does in public. After all, information not only wants to be free, it also seems to always be looking for someone to bite in the ass.


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