Not long ago, the mere suggestion that the government might be snooping on its citizens was enough to make certain deeply paranoid individuals in the U.S. scuttle around their basements in a panic, checking that the straps of their tinfoil hats were securely fastened and listening nervously for the distant hum of approaching black helicopters. And that was just the mainstream media.
Constitutional lawyers and civil liberties campaigners have also been greatly exercised over the subject, along with those conspiracy theorists deemed too unstable even to hold down a job at the New York Times. These latter groups, though, are reasonably consistent when it comes to expressing concern over the government spying on its citizens.
The media on the other hand, seems to have largely lost interest in the subject.
One reason for this newfound ambivalence is that since a federal appeals court ruled in January that national security trumps privacy where international phone calls and emails are intercepted on U.S. soil, the government and intelligence community no longer appear to have a case to answer in that area. Another reason is that the NSA’s alleged secret program to collect and store records of the phone calls and emails of ordinary Americans, regardless of any overseas link, was reportedly abandoned in 2004.
But the most compelling explanation for the media’s declining interest in government spies is that their concern always had more to do with the political affiliation of those doing the spying than with any high-minded concerns for Americans’ privacy. And a year ago, the issue stopped being a stick with which they could beat the Bush administration. Of course, there is also the embarrassing fact that President Obama, he of the ever-shifting principles and promises that come with expiration dates, is retaining much of the intelligence-gathering apparatus his predecessor put in place.
While revelations about government eavesdropping and data-mining operations are no longer headline news in the U.S., in Britain the debate is just getting started. Gordon Brown’s government is pressing ahead with plans to store the phone calls, text messages, and emails of every citizen for a year, along with details of every website visited.
The information will be made available to public bodies including the police, local councils, and financial regulators. The government insists the proposal — known as the Intercept Modernisation Programme — is vital for enabling the police and security services to combat crime and terrorism in a rapidly changing communications environment. It has sparked predictable outrage from civil liberties groups and opposition MPs, who say it amounts to government spying on citizens.