OK, Yeah, Whatever, NSA Spies

I always feel like somebody's watching me.

I have been trying, diligently, to develop a strong reaction to the NSA controversies that rattled the Obama administration this week.

I’ve done so, in part, because we’d hardly absorbed the unsettling revelations about the NSA’s phone record collection and PRISM program before outrage about the lack of outrage crept into the blogosphere.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Daniel J. Solove wrote a treatise against what he called the “nothing to hide” argument: “Privacy is often threatened not by a single egregious act but by the slow accretion of a series of relatively minor acts …  Although society is more likely to respond to a major oil spill, gradual pollution by a multitude of actors often creates worse problems.”

Emily Bazelon, in her piece “I Am Worried. You Should Be Too,” chimed in on Slate: “The existence of these newly reported databases should be worrisome because once the information is collected, it is so much easier for the government to misuse it. The more data mining, the more it becomes routine and the more tempting to come up with more uses for it.”

Quickly, the discourse pitted civic warrior against apathetic citizen; those who valued personal liberty versus the desensitized; the Get Its vs. the Just Don’t Get Its.

I think I do get it: The NSA is collecting data on when we’re making phone calls and whom we’re calling. They also have at least some access to server data (emails, instant messages) from Internet service providers that they may or may not be able to use for dubious purposes. This is all legal—if questionably so—because FISA courts ruled that it’s a necessary means to keeping terrorism at bay.

It’s not that all this doesn’t give me pause. There’s plenty in my Internet search purse I don’t want emptied, and I know that this does, at the very least, raise questions about how and why the government collects information on its citizens, and the kind of relationship we have with our government in the post-9/11 surveillance era. And historically, my sympathy for our oft-invasive counter-terrorism efforts has been minimal; the failure of these surveillance tactics to raise any hair on my arms doesn’t come from an excess of patriotic loyalty.

(That’s the sort of thing they’ll flag someday, won’t they?)

Still, for all I’m reading about the slippery slope toward a new world order we’re skidding down, in which our every Google is examined by sharp-eyed intelligence officers, my inertia remains heavy. I don’t think I’m alone, either. A coworker who’s generally very on top of world affairs told me she still didn’t know what to make of the whole controversy. In fact, most people I know not writing op-eds on the topic are uncertain about what this new information actually means for them.

Part of it may be the failure of imagination Solove identifies in his Chronicle piece—the chasm between what we know the NSA is doing and the more dramatic possibilities it suggests for the future is a wide one. His analogy about the new surveillance procedures being akin to pollution isn’t a bad one, but it still falls short for the average observer. I can identify the problem with someone tossing a Coke can into the Delaware River; it’s more difficult to articulate concrete harm caused by an average private citizen’s emails being stored (and for all we know, collecting dust) in a government database somewhere.

More than anything else, though, my inability to rev my engines over the NSA matter may stem from the fact that I’m awfully accustomed to the thought that, at any given moment, anonymous parties are collecting information about me: the places I go, the keywords I search, the friends I make, and the very thoughts I have. I put a weekly internal monologue up on the Internet every week here on phillymag.com. I walk through Rittenhouse Square on blissful summer days knowing full well my  stroll is on a security camera somewhere.

That’s not to say even I don’t have limits—I was as offended as anyone else by the warrantless wiretapping the NSA admitted to just a few years ago. I still cringe with embarrassment at airports when I have to hold my arms over my head so an unseen (I always assume completely pervy) TSA agent can look my digital silhouette up and down for firearms. Hell, I still get creeped out by targeted ad verticals (“I was just looking at those shoes!”)

But don’t those feel like lines we crossed ages ago? I did not know about the PRISM program before this week, of course, and while I think there’s legitimacy to the call for transparency when it comes to the collection of our personal information, I wasn’t exactly surprised to find out about the NSA’s actions. On some level, I assumed that today, in 2013, I could be shaken down for every transaction I’ve ever made if the government deemed it necessary.

Maybe, as so many suggest, I’m part of the problem. Part of a larger societal failure to recognize that slowly, the government is whittling away at our basic civil liberties. Maybe it will take an oil spill before I take to the streets in protest. When you spend too much time in smog, I guess it gets harder to remember that it’s actually not how the air looks.