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  (Curtis Lantinga)

 

(Curtis Lantinga)

MARGARET WENTE

Online surveillance: What could go wrong? Add to ...

The other day, I went on Amazon and ordered a coffee grinder. Then I visited my favourite blog. Right away, an ad popped up especially for me, featuring great deals on kitchenware at Amazon!

“Don’t you think that’s kind of creepy? ” I asked my husband.

“Oh, get over it,” he said. “Don’t be so Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

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In the digital age, privacy concerns seem as quaint as buggy whips and hoop skirts. People share their every fleeting thought on Twitter. Marketers know everything about you. Hardly anybody cares who’s watching.

So why are we so disconcerted to find out that our governments are engaged in massive cyberspying?

It’s the scale of it that boggles the imagination. They’re tapping in to telephone companies to get our call logs. The U.S. has a massive secret surveillance program called PRISM that’s allegedly in cahoots with the world’s top tech companies – Microsoft, Google, Skype, Apple, Facebook and others. Those libertarian Silicon Valley types, who are always going on about how the Internet promotes freedom, have teamed up with the world’s most powerful security agency to create the biggest surveillance state the world has ever known.

Canada is in the cyberspying business, too. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Only foreigners are supposed to be targeted, but that’s a fiction. So long as the Internet crosses borders, so does the surveillance.

But hey, don’t worry. It’s not as if they’re eavesdropping on you. As Barack Obama reassured the public the other day, “Nobody has listened to the content of people’s phone calls.”

The thing is, nobody has to. They already know who you are, where you are, who you’re talking to and what you’re doing. They can read your e-mail and check your bank account. As long as you live in the digital universe, you leave a trail of e-spoor that tells them everything about you.

Human spying is so last century. Today, George Smiley has been replaced by an algorithm. To infiltrate the enemy, we use powerful computers and data meta-mining to sift through quintillions of bytes of data. The U.S. government is building a giant fortress in Utah to store all the data it collects, indefinitely. Advanced technology has given the state vast new surveillance powers Dick Cheney could only have dreamed of.

Don’t ask how this surveillance works, because that’s a secret. Don’t ask who ultimately signs off on it, or who watches the watchers. For security reasons, there’s a whole lot we’re not allowed to know. But that’s okay, because we have been reassured that the tradeoff between privacy and security is worth it. All this information is used only to go after bad guys and keep the rest of us safe. Trustworthy people are in charge. So what could possibly go wrong?

Absolutely nothing. Unless the surveillance state goes after you, too. Which is a paranoid fantasy – isn’t it?

Not according to all the people who’ve ganged up on U.S. President Barack Obama. He is facing a firestorm of outrage, from everyone from Rush Limbaugh to The New York Times. According to them, we’re on the slippery slope to the police state.

Or maybe the real problem, as Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems told the Times, is “the scope creep of the government. I think it’s great they’re looking for the next terrorist. Then I wonder if they’re going to arrest me, or snoop on me.”

Mr. McNealy is the same guy who said in 1999: “You have zero privacy … Get over it.” And actually, I think most people have. So what if everyone is snooping on them? They’re used to it. They figure they’ve got nothing to hide anyway. To them, all this Big Brother talk is nonsense. It’s so Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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