Spying and Lying

The most important story of 2013.

Many wonderful things happened this year, including serious advances in LGBT rights, which continue to grow throughout the world. But, unfortunately, 2013 will be remembered as the year in which, as global citizens, we have acquiesced to the development of a surveillance state paid for by our tax dollars that is constantly monitoring nearly our every move. While we have always known that Santa was watching if we were naughty or nice, having governments secretly gathering, analyzing, and following our personal activities is a different matter.

Through revelations exposed by the heroic whistleblower Edward Snowden and bravely published by the British newspaper The Guardian and others, it can now be fairly said that our government and other governments are tracking and storing evidence of nearly everything we do. They are using this data to compile electronic portraits of us for any purpose they deem appropriate. Similar to the justifications in George Orwell’s prescient novel 1984, today’s never-ending “war on terror” is used to justify anything — including everything governments do.

Last week, based on Snowden’s information, the Washington Post reported on the massive cellphone location program of the National Security Agency (NSA), codenamed Co-Traveler. While previous revelations disclosed that our emails, browsing histories, Skype calls, and other electronic activity were being collected, we now know that every day, Co-Traveler tracks hundreds of millions of cellphones around the world, collecting our movements as well. Using this data, it maps our activity and compares our movements with others’. Trillions of these records are saved and stored in gargantuan federal databases.

The loss of privacy in the electronic age is old news. But, previously, this loss of privacy has been framed as our free willingness to share certain details of our life in exchange for the right to use new technology that allows us to flourish in fascinating new ways. Yes, Facebook uses our images as part of its business model and the revealing selfies we post can be misused; but, it is argued, this privacy loss is consensual or at least in the open, so we should get over our worries.

But personal information freely shared is fundamentally different from secret government seizures. Governments are gathering the information, analyzing it, and lying about what they are doing. And unlike with Facebook, no one who uses electronic gear can opt out.

But this is only half the story.

As Snowden’s shocking revelations have slowly come to light, a pattern of governmental dishonesty has emerged that is occurring on a scale unseen in our lifetime. That is saying a lot. The stories in the sleaziest Hollywood tabloids have more truth in them than the statements made by our government officials to courts and Congress on the spying issue. Administration officials routinely fib under oath in surreal and darkly comical Congressional hearings to legislators who have to be in on the con. For a hoot, check out the “Universal Surveillance Justification” tool on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website. You can mix and match the justificatory lies of government officials in response to each new revelation.

I am generally allergic to conspiracy theories, but the brazen governmental disrespect for our privacy and mocking of our passivity is painful to recount. A slide from a leaked NSA presentation characterizes those of us who use smartphones as “zombies,” who happily buy the very products that allow the NSA to monitor us.

For those of us who worry about the moral fabric of our society, this public contempt and dishonesty by our leaders who swear oaths to protect the Constitution and our rights are much more corrosive to the healthy growth of our kids than Miley Cyrus’ blatant sexuality.

The failure to take seriously or to protest these revelations also has resulted in another besmirching of contemporary liberalism. President Obama defended this National Security Agency campaign to a TV pundit last week, saying that “the NSA isn’t interested in reading people’s emails and text messages.” Not interested? Who accepts this as adequate protection from an all-powerful federal government? Are liberals so happy to have Obama as our president that they hear no evil, say no evil, and see no evil, even as we give away our children’s Constitutional rights? Would they have accepted this from a President Romney?

The bright spot in the story comes from heroic individuals. The lonely and valiant actions of Snowden, like Chelsea Manning earlier, remind me of the fearless beings of the last fifty years who suffered for us all — Buddhist monks in Vietnam practicing self-immolation to end that unnecessary war, citizens in Prague who clutched flowers and stood defiantly in front of Soviet tanks, and the young people who perished in Tiananmen Square in the protests of 1989. All took seriously the notions of freedom that their governments espoused but cynically expressed in practice, and tried to hold their leaders to their words.

At the close of 2013, we, as global citizens, seem to be satisfied with governmental promises that the NSA is not interested in “us.” It seems fine if governments know, like Santa, when we are sleeping, or awake, or bad or good. Or maybe, as with the deeply sinful criminality in the financial sector today, the depth and breadth of wrongdoing is so sweeping that it is difficult to fathom, leaving us in a kind of collective shock. But it is sad to ponder that, when future students read Orwell’s 1984, they will wonder why their relatives allowed it to happen here, especially after we had fair warning.

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