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Friday, May 12, 2006

Political Geekery: When Geeks Attack

It’s about the wire-tapping, people. Skip it if you want. I’m no pundit; in fact, I may just be getting in way over my head here, but ... here goes.

I feel like I have nothing to fear from the government reading my e-mails or listening on my phone—and what makes me feel even more secure is the ridiculousness of the notion that the government would ever monitor MY communications. “Mark that; that’s four calls from his wife in one day—this guy is hen-pecked. He’s our terrorist-in-the-making, alright.” (That's a joke, honey.)

Does anyone really believe in this daffy chimpanzee-at-the-wheel that we've made Bush out to be? Does anyone really see their congress-person as some kind of cartoonish super-villain, making secret plans in a secret lab to undermine their citizenship and rights? Oh, don't get me wrong; I'm irked that these guys make decisions about Social Security but don't have to live on it like the rest of us, but do I think they're acting completely heedless of their constituency? Do I believe the President of the United States is spending his time in the White House trying to bring the whole country down around our ears?

I know it'll get me stoned—probably right here, right now—but I have faith in the officials we elected. And we DID elect them. I don’t care WHAT the ballot was shaped like—butterflies, clowns, tentacled aliens—a vote is a vote, so look a little closer in 2008, people.

I think the underlying fear here—paranoia, really—comes from the fact that we have a government that is designed to be run by the people but is actually NOT being run by the people. We've got a low voter-turn-out, poor attendance at community government meetings, disinterest in the real news (only stuff that bleeds or dies for me, okay? no local issues or budget run-downs!), and a tendency to spend what precious time we dedicate to debating government policy ... on character-smearing the current guy in office.

This wire-tapping issue is a great example. I would like to know how people would feel about a society where every message you send, every phone call you make, every letter you write, and every forum post like this had to contain—or link to—your name, age, gender, race, weight, political affiliation, work history, voting record, criminal record, and favorite color. Imagine the controversy there! Whole forums where "people who like the color green" are not welcome because they can't be trusted!

Maybe we just have this innate need to believe that this information is more important than it actually is. It’s like the guy who refuses to tell you what he does for a living so that he can persist in the illusion that his work is top-secret. We taught ourselves to fear this kind of 'intrusion' by the government.

Intrusion? Do you know how easy it is to go read someone’s e-mail? About as easy as reading someone’s blog—you send your mail out over the INTERNET, people. Gosh, wouldn't it be embarrassing if someone were reading this post right now, hearing me sound like a total political lightweight? I can picture them now, shaking their heads and making a mental check-mark next to "doesn't have anything useful to say."

So, that’s my point, I guess: isn't our privacy just sort of an illusion anyway? We feel like we are sheltered and protected—or we feel like we are anonymous and distanced—when in reality we may be living next door to a terrorist, or we may be the victims of identity theft right now and not know it ... or we may be mouthing off in a blog or a forum to someone who turns out to be our eighth grade gym teacher.

Mr. Chowns, is that you?

Anyway, what I meant to say is that it doesn't bother me to know (or suspect) that someone is reading my mail when I'm actually more worried about someone hijacking my credit cards ... or bombing my church. And maybe by letting some shades-sporting-suit read my mail (and my creepy neighbor's) I might escape both of those fates. Answer me a couple of questions, people:

1. I thought the Right to Privacy--that has been debated recently in the courts—turned out to be an interpretative fallacy of some sort; I am reading up on it right now, but I thought I would throw it out there. Does the Constitution ever actually guarantee a Right to Privacy?

2. And I was led to believe—perhaps erroneously—that e-mail surveillance was done by computers scanning for word combinations rather than a team of people sitting around and sifting through e-mails one-by-one. Isn't that a little different than having someone actually looking over your shoulder when you type?

I know I'm not the only one who feels this way about the level of privacy I should expect from the government.

I think about elementary school—teachers are expected to look through children's backpacks to find notes from parents or homework or lunch money because the kids are just six years old; and then in middle school and high school we are told that we don't have any expectation of privacy in our lockers because the school owns them and we should expect to have them searched in the event of a drug investigation or a bomb scare; and then once we get to college, we just sort of expect to graduate to complete independence and anonymity. No one should ever check up on us again, right?

Well, brace yourselves for some pretty radical thought here, people: I think there should be more than an AGE requirement for rights like that. We require people to list criminal convictions on job applications, we take a medical history before admitting a patient, we do background checks for government jobs and firearm permits, and we "Google" ... well, we Google just about anyone for any reason—or no reason at all—why?

I mean, why do we do these things if we value privacy so much?

I think it's because we know that just because someone has survived to adulthood doesn't mean that they are responsible enough to carry a firearm. And just because the kid is eighteen doesn't mean that he has given careful consideration to the vote he's about to cast. And just because he passed a driving test doesn’t mean he knows when he’s had enough to drink. And just because he's married with two kids and goes to soccer games doesn't mean that he's not spending evenings and early mornings assembling bombs in his basement.

I believe in allowing people freedoms—but I don’t believe in allowing everyone every freedom all the time. We need to earn certain freedoms; that means monitoring the level of personal responsibility until we can be reasonably sure that a person can be trusted. And if the freedom is abused, it can be taken away. We do it with drivers’ licenses—not enough of the time, but somewhat—but we can’t do it with e-mail privacy? (Besides, if you really have something that personal and private to say, shouldn’t you be saying it in person, big boy? Get a room!)

Is the government also opening snail-mail? Not that I’ve heard, but I don’t have my ear to the ground in any real sense. Try writing words on a page next time you’re feeling oh-so-secretive—oh, but I guess your mail might get sniffed by a dog somewhere, you know, in case there are drugs or a bomb in there. Is that an invasion of privacy, too? I have to admit that most of the time I’m sniffed by dogs I feel as though I have been invaded. Better write your congress-person to let them know of your displeasure with the idea of your mail being sniffed by a police dog.

I just don’t get it. That’s all. I just don’t see what the big deal is. Read this, government snooping-software: I am no terrorist. I don’t care if you read my blog, my phone records, my mail or anyone else’s. Do what you think is reasonably necessary to find the next “holy vigilante” planning to rock my world in the name of his deity.

As soon as I say something like that, someone is picturing a communist state, people living in poverty, police beating citizens and imprisoning them for months or years with little or no cause or provocation, information being rationed, filtered, or outright fabricated for us. Why? Is this the extreme to which we think this will come? Have we become so engorged on information, so self-important with our limited knowledge of these events that we can trace a direct path from cause to effect and predict the future?

I believe the pendulum swings. I believe that this wire-tapping crap is a shock and a hot-button for people now, but I believe that in a few years—or in a few minutes—either their attention will be diverted to some Hollywood incident (summer blockbusters, here we come!) or they will simply lose interest during the next presidential election campaigns—so much easier to rave about something when it’s up-to-the-minute: you’re guaranteed to find a cozy spot online with a dozen or a hundred other hotheads where you can breed ideologies all day.

You know what might happen? They might discover that a cell of terrorists in Wisconsin (no offense, cheeseheads) was ferreted out by a piece of obscure mail-reading software ... and then the guy who lives next door to one of the zealots—the same guy who has spent hours each day touting the mysterious Right to Privacy—will likely not spare one kind word or begrudging bit of gratitude for his safety. He’ll go on saying that he “would have rather died a horrible death than endanger our beloved Constitution” and so forth. It’s always easier to say once the guy is behind bars.

You know what’s easier to do BEFORE the guy is behind bars? Tell yourself that you’re safe, and stagnate in your complacency. Try it! It’s pretty easy on the stomach!

Maybe the best thing to come out of this wire-tapping nonsense is heightened public awareness—if you can call it that. I’d better stop before I start making fun of people who go foaming at the mouth over something before they have all the facts—because that hits a little too close to home for me.


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Did you see V for Vendetta?

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