Not Yet, Mr. Obama

Trust us. That’s President Obama’s message to the American people on wholesale domestic spying.

When the Germans–whose past includes two of the most terrifying, relentless domestic surveillance apparatuses in history, the Nazis and the Stasi–lecture the U.S. about the dangers of it, one has to wonder.

Is our culture, driven by technology, ineluctably evolving into a police state? It’s foolish to turn a blind eye to potential terrorist plots, but how do we implement reasonable security systems that don’t erode the very democracy and liberty they’re supposed to protect? How does this not become a self-fulfilling positive feedback loop?

Ever-expanding, interlinked technology creates greater vulnerabilities due to our increasing common reliance on it for everything from saying hi to mom to managing the world’s financial system, and requires more sophisticated countermeasures. It is an upward-ratcheting dynamic, like an arms race.

Obama is trying to do the right thing, but circumstance has dealt him a very bad hand. He talks of checks an balances. Yet he’s also setting up a system that is perfectly designed for instantaneous abuse when social order is deeply stressed—like when we get an abrupt climate change triggered by the sudden disappearance of the Arctic ice cap.

The Yet Game
Fortune Cookie 1Let’s play a game. It’s a variation on the one in which you append the phrase “in bed” to the advice you find in a fortune cookie. You break open the little clam-shaped wafer and read, “You will experience much happiness,” to which you add “in bed.” Only we’re going to take Obama’s reassurances and append the word, “Yet.”

This is not a situation in which we are rifling through ordinary emails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anybody else.”  Yet.

Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this program’s about. Yet.

What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls, and the NSA cannot target your emails … and have not.Yet.

The very fact that there is all this data in bulk, it has the enormous potential for abuse … All of that is true. Except for the fact that … we would not be allowed to do that. Yet.

At the same time the Obama administration assures us it’s maintaining our freedoms and our privacy, it has launched the Insider Threat Program. This program demands that government employees keep tabs on one another, and can make them an accessory to a crime if someone they work with leaks government data. How is this not like what the nuns told me was going on in Communist Cuba in the days of the Missile Crisis, when people were pressured to spy on each other and police each other’s thoughts?

Incrementally, unconsciously, we continue to build out and bait this trap for ourselves that we call the technology age. Even our solutions feed the problem: internet democracy yields the technology of centralized control. How do we check the checks when the government says the very act of checking will reveal the vulnerabilities to saboteurs and terrorists, therefore we cannot be allowed to check?

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