NSA Phone Record Collecting and the Melancholy of Living in the Future (Updated):
Let us say, and why not, that you're a straight dude who just knocked up a woman after a one-night stand. Oh, sure, there were decisions you could have made along the way. You could have worn a condom. You could have not gone all the way, stopping with some good oral and a notch in the belt. But you just boned away and, now, a month later, you get the call. The woman is pregnant. She's reaching out to you, saying she's carry the pregnancy to term, wondering if you want to be part of the baby's life, telling you that she'll need financial help. She's explaining it all to you, clearly, maturely, even. Now, let's say that you are not rich. You can't just pay her off and make her go away. Sure, you can ignore her, pretending that it's not really happening, but at some point, you're gonna get that letter saying how much you owe. And, oh, you stupid idiot, what you set into motion with your wayward dick is going to hang around your neck the rest of your life. You can pretend to ignorance, but that's gonna fail. The only thing you can really do is learn how to live with it because whatever you thought about your life before doesn't matter because the world is different now, the landscape has changed, and the future ain't what it was supposed to be, it's just what it's gonna be.
The real significance of the court order that Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and Spencer Ackerman reported on in The Guardian isn't that it reveals that the National Security Agency was getting millions of telephone records from Verizon in a fishing expedition for terrorists, maybe hackers, who knows. If you didn't think that that was going on, you're fucking blind and stupid. What's important is that we know that the order, from the FISA court, approved based on secret legal reasoning for secret goals, exists and forces us to confront, as we must again and again, the reality of the surveillance state we now exist in. You know it's there. What are you going to do about it?
We live in the post-privacy era, and, try as we might, unless you're gonna go Alex Jones-unhinged and live off the grid, our communications are now subject to constant intrusion and scrutiny. Fuck, the Rude Pundit believes that he is being monitored all the time. He knows that someone he doesn't know will have access to his email, his phone calls, his texts; that his movements can be tracked by cameras and satellites and the GPS in his iPhone; that every time he uses his EZ-Pass on the road, someone knows where he is. He accepts that as part of daily life in the West in the 21st century.
What the Obama administration did was completely legal. It was completely legal because the majority of the nation simply doesn't care about the vast array of powers granted to spy agencies under the Patriot Act. It will continue because there will be no outcry, there will be no outrage. There will merely be Democratic apologists for the president defending his actions; Republicans divided into two camps: clownish hypocrites who condemn Obama when they defended George W. Bush for doing the same thing without court approval and slavering hawks who don't give a shit how many rights are trampled on; and the uneasy alliance of libertarians and civil libertarians who are genuinely pissed off and scared by the confirmation of the secret surveillance of all of us.
The Rude Pundit doesn't fall into any of those camps. He takes the long view, backwards and forwards. Once the Patriot Act was passed and mass surveillance by the federal government was legalized, the cherry was popped. You can't unfuck the deflowered virgin. And, frankly, as soon as communications shifted from typed letters to whatever floats through the intertubes or in the ether, notions of communication and privacy shifted, whether we knew it or not. Mass adoption of new technology changes human beings' relationship with the world. Whether it's television's contribution to the death of other types of media and to much of the public sphere as a place of social and political interaction or cell phones changing how we speak and write to each other, it often takes a generation or two before we figure out just how the technology has transformed things (just in time for the new technology to change things again, of course). We need a new sociological and even linguistic paradigm for understanding our relationship to each other and our government in this post-privacy era.
No president is ever going to give back the powers that were granted to George W. Bush in 2001. If you're scared that Obama has them, well, shit, a bunch of us warned you that Bush wasn't gonna be president forever. And even if the Patriot Act were, through some miracle, overturned in court or legislated out of existence, it's too late: the web of surveillance has been put in place. You can bet that its future legality has already been set up.
It is a frightening thought, yes, that our responsibility as citizens is not to try to reclaim our lost privacy. What revolution will accomplish that? It ain't gonna happen. It's sad, frustrating, enraging, and ultimately exhausting and enervating. That boat has sailed, and it ain't ever returning to port.
What we are left with is merely electing people who we believe will be wise shepherds of this power to invade our privacy whenever they wish in order to "protect us" from "terrorists" or the fake existential threats of the future. That is a sad reduction of democracy. That is the opposite of hope, no? Merely wanting to be led by people who won't harm us?
Update: As the Rude Pundit was posting this, Salon posted an interview with NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, who says essentially the same thing as here (without the pregnancy analogy). There is no turning back.