Government Surveillance Only Hurts When it Hits Home

The masses don't seem to mind public espionage when it's someone else who is being tracked.

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People stop to talk as crowd leaves the Masjid Omar following prayers in Paterson, N.J. The Masjid Omar was identified as a target for surveillance in a 2006 NYPD report uncovered by The Associated Press. AP IMAGES

While Dharun Ravi awaits sentencing for spying on one person, the New York Police Department spies with impunity on who knows how many people with "suspect" political or religious beliefs. The National Security Agency simplifies matters by spying on everyone. "The NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the U.S. and its citizens," James Bamford warns in Wired in an alarming (but not surprising) expose of a massive $2 billion data center under construction in Utah:

Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails -- parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital pocket litter. It is, in some measure, the realization of the "total information awareness" program created during the first term of the Bush administration -- an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans' privacy.

Many may not mind police lawlessness in the name of security, so long as they feel protected and not targeted by it.

Bamford's latest revelations have caused no comparable outcry, perhaps in part because they haven't been very widely disseminated -- at least not yet. So far, his expose has received fairly scant media attention compared, to say, to the Ravi case. Maybe it's only natural. You might expect people to care more about one dramatic violation of privacy than millions of them: One death is a tragedy, and the death of millions a statistic, as the saying goes. 

Ravi's crime was part of an emotionally resonant story about a shocking suicide and the presumed scourge of bullying. Surveillance on the grand scale, with no grand felt effects on daily life is more abstract. It's less a story than an idea -- except to people who feel personally threatened by it.

Polls about surveillance and other civil liberties issues evidence a predictable phenomenon: People tend to oppose the abuses that target them, individually or as members of a group. A 2006 New York Times poll about NSA spying (which has been in and out of the news for years) found that "respondents overwhelmingly supported e-mail and telephone monitoring directed at 'Americans that the government is suspicious of.'" They overwhelmingly opposed the same kind of surveillance if it was aimed at "'ordinary Americans.'" A recent Washington Post/ABC survey found that 70 percent of the public supports the Administration's decision to keep Guantanamo open (presumably no relatives of the 70 percent are imprisoned there), and 83 percent approve of Obama's drone policy (whatever it may be, most Americans probably don't expect to be victims of it).

Similarly, a Quinnipiac Poll finds that a majority of New Yorkers support the NYPD, Commissioner Ray Kelly, and the targeted surveillance of Muslims (chronicled by the AP). Spying on people and keeping dossiers on them solely on the basis of their political views or religious affiliations is unlawful, pursuant to court-ordered guidelines governing the police, dating back to 1985 and modified after 9/11. (The Handschu guidelines were issued in settlement of a class action lawsuit involving intelligence gathering abuses during the 1960s.) But a majority of voters are probably unaware of legal constraints on surveillance, and many may not mind police lawlessness in the name of security, so long as they feel protected and not targeted by it.

"Voter approval of the way police are handling terrorism is through the roof," Maurice Carroll director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute asserts. "New Yorkers brush aside the gripes about police surveillance of the Muslim community." But the Quinnipiac Poll doesn't track the percentage of Muslim New Yorkers who approve or disapprove of the NYPD, and I bet that collectively they're less supportive of the surveillance program and less likely to dismiss objections to it as gripes.

Civil libertarians have been "griping" about ubiquitous government surveillance for years, with obvious and depressing futility, but gripes about corporate surveillance, understandably, have more effect. Private-sector data mining and other invasions of privacy (like employer requests for Facebook passwords) can't be marketed as safety measures. They increase anxiety about exposure without decreasing anxiety about security. They target "ordinary Americans": consumers and wage earners.

"Ordinary Americans" are the people politicians and other officials are most anxious to protect (or be seen protecting) from intrusive corporations as well as terrorists. So it's not surprising that Senate Democrats Chuck Schumer and Richard Blumenthal have requested a Justice Department investigation of the password requests, or that the Federal Trade Commission is recommending regulation of data brokers.

But it's worth remembering that while a weak arm of government strives to preserve some measure of our privacy, the strong arm of government is obliterating all traces of it. Should we be grateful to the FTC? The most you can say is, "thanks a little." But say it to yourself, or the NSA will hear you.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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