And It’s No Surprise

The public was not alarmed after Edward Snowden blew the cover on the government’s vast data mining operation. Without thinking too much about it, it looked like most of us had assumed it was going on all the time.

After all, in an age where anyone can find most of our relevant data through Google, “private” information requires just a bit more effort to get. Years of having our email accounts hacked, discovering that employers often have access to our medical records, reading about leaks and corporate espionage and identity theft, most people have come to take it for granted that any information about them can easily end up in the public realm. We are exposed daily to the sharing of information about our retail purchases, our surfing habits, our “likes” and “friends.” CCTV cameras track our every move. And, even if we don’t have the skills to do it ourselves, we know about the millions of geeks around the world who take every secret as a challenge to decode and unearth.

We know it — and yet we have not fully taken it in. Most people I know take routine precautions. They don’t respond to requests for passwords, and don’t send money to friends who have been allegedly stranded in a foreign country. But we are not as obsessed with security as we would need to be to keep our secrets safe or as cavalier as we should be in accepting our exposure. As The New York Times put it in an editorial, we have “traded privacy for convenience.”

And we try not to think about how vulnerable we are. As The Times went on to say: “the privacy war is asymmetric. Governments have spent billions to develop tools to conduct surveillance and hack into computer systems. Far fewer resources have been devoted to protecting users from such intrusions.”

As a result, people like Snowden and Pvt. Manning and Julian Assange are seen as modern day Robin Hoods. They steal the cloak of secrecy from the powerful to expose their hypocrisy. (See, “Can’t Hide in the Cloud.”)

Mainstream journalists now are rallying around the government, lining up against The Guardian, where Snowden’s revelations were first published, as well as the public’s inclination to celebrate their new Robin Hoods. The journalists do have a point, of course, as data mining on a grand scale is probably here to stay as a necessary tool to fight terrorism.

Tom Friedman wrote in The Times, “If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: ‘Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.’ That is what I fear most.” (See, “Blowing a Whistle.)

In making that defense, however, Friedman and others are exposing the reality that the public has conceded the struggle already, and it has settled into a semi-paranoid complacency and a convenient surrender to round-the-clock surveillance.

Public attitudes here are not the point. Just as Wall Street needs careful regulation, intelligence needs monitoring by those who know what they are doing – as the rest of us go on pretending we still have secrets while looking the other way. The problem clearly requires the kind of specialized commitment, energy and know-how that journalists seem reluctant to call for.