The facts are still coming in on Edward Snowden, the guy who spilled the beans on the National Security Agency's surveillance of you, me and most likely everyone in America with a cellphone or an Internet connection. Right now, however, I'm betting he'll eventually be revealed as an angry white geek. He brags about his privileged access to data and waxes sanctimonious about his superior conscience, but he also carries more than a faint trace of doomsday prepper.
The programs he ratted out constitute, he said on videotape Monday, an "architecture of oppression" that could "get worse" with every generation that extends its capabilities. Put in layman's terms, he fears Big Brother. And he's willing to go to prison (or apparently Iceland, if he has his druthers) to help free the world from its clutches and put human history back on track.
It turns out the rest of us don't scare that easily — or care that much. The results of a Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll released Monday show that 56% of Americans find the NSA's telephone monitoring techniques "acceptable." Forty-five percent find it way beyond "acceptable." In the interests of preventing a terrorist attack, they say, the government should be able to do what it must, even if that means keeping tabs on every single American.
Of course, keeping tabs has only gotten easier — and more familiar — for us all. By the end of 2006, Facebook had 12 million users. Today it has more than a billion. Google — and the breadcrumbs it drops — is even more ubiquitous. The search engine, which like Facebook is among the sites tracked by the NSA, had 91 million searches a day in 2006. In 2012, that number was 1.2 trillion.
We long ago proved we're willing to trade a lot fewer trips to the bank — and a lot of our privacy — for convenience. Yes, we'd like to have some control over it all, to curate what gets out there, but that just proves the point. We don't want privacy so much as privacy settings.
Maybe it's to our credit that we realize that it's a bit hypocritical to fret over the minuscule chance that someone in the government could read our emails or is checking out what we sell on eBay when in fact we willingly give out this information to private companies on a constant basis. We generally click the "terms and privacy" statement without reading it. Despite our best (or modest) efforts, our passwords and PINs float around cyberspace like dandelion seeds. We even take it upon ourselves to broadcast our whereabouts at every turn, geotagging our Flickr uploads and sharing our locations on Foursquare so the resulting metadata can live on for eternity.
This is not to equate consumer research, sneaky though it may be, and government spying. There's a difference between voluntarily letting an online retailer know what kind of shoes we like and the NSA eavesdropping because some algorithm takes "That's the bomb" literally. Governments, at their most extreme, can send people to gulags or silence speech in ways that cause permanent damage to society. So it's disingenuous to say, "Well, we already parade ourselves around on Facebook; what difference does it make if we add a couple government surveillance experts to our audience?"
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And yet the notion that Americans put a premium on privacy is equally disingenuous, even though we invoke the word a lot. "Privacy," like "freedom," has patriotic connotations that we pay lip service to, but it also may be, deep down, something a lot of us fear in a certain way. In a world of oversharing, we don't want to be unknown or unseen. We don't want to be left out.
Maybe that's why so many of us have gravitated toward "let them monitor me; I have nothing to hide" logic. After all, there's little point in being an open book if no one's going to read you.
It's even possible that a few folks are a tiny bit flattered at the idea of the NSA watching them. What could be better, after all, than a government spy looking at your Facebook page and bitterly thinking, "Wow, this person's life is way better than mine"?