One of my favorite bits of wisdom about the modern world goes “the information revolution happened and the information won.” We’re drowning in information. We can read most any newspaper and watch most any TV program anywhere in the world at any hour of the day or night. We can find out what so and so thinks about most anything, and we can even check to see if he has changed his mind over the years. We can also find out virtually anything we want to know about a person’s health, income, job, diet, religion, reading habits…whatever. I’m not talking about the IRS or the NSA-acting-as-FBI-proxy; these data are all over the place, from Utah to Canada to Googleland (don’t forget that “Google is Hal”). (h/t James Burt, who commented on the MIT Technology Review site).
The good news, so to speak, is that there is so much information, our abilities to sort it out are overwhelmed. Paradoxically, we’ve probably got more to worry about from the Department of Education than from the National Security Agency.
We are rightly enraged to discover that the IRS snoops into the reading and prayer habits of Obama’s political opponents, and that the NSA-acting-as-FBI-proxy intercepts and stores all the phone calls and emails it can get its virtual claws on. But it’s not just the national security agencies and the tax men that do this. Companies trying to identify likely customers do it. They also do it to real and potential competitors. Hackers do it, sometimes for their own excitement, sometimes on commission. And “educators” do it too, even to kindergarteners.
Snooping is rampant. Sometimes it’s super high-tech, sometimes it’s traditional. Sometimes it’s good for us, as when terror plots are found and prevented, and when fraud is discovered and the criminals are punished. Sometimes it’s bad for us, as when some wicked person, in or outside government, uses our once-private information to shake us down, or intimidate us.
Or ruin us.
No person can survive a detailed biographical inquiry. We’ve all done things we shouldn’t, and we’ve failed to do things we should. Those stories, especially if artfully presented, can destroy any candidate or public official. That’s why public figures don’t want their lives–the whole of them–presented to the electorate. And it’s why there’s a profession known as “opposition research,” which engages a considerable number of IT-savvy people who search relentlessly for damaging information about their actual and potential political opponents. And it’s also why famous people, like the president, have taken extraordinary steps to conceal certain details of their lives.
It didn’t start that way, but inevitably, like so much of our world, it became politicized. Modern snooping achieved lift-off velocity in two areas: commerce and national security. The private sector found there was money to be made in that pile of data. Once they knew “who you were” (that is, what you would buy) they could target you with offers to buy things that you were really and truly interested in. And the IT guys could sell this information to the marketing guys. Everybody could make money. It worked. It was irresistible.
The State couldn’t very well stay out of that game; indeed, they’d been playing for decades, albeit on a smaller field. When I was in government in the 1980s, we snooped a lot, or so it seemed. I got a lot of NSA material dealing with subjects of concern to my work, and we, usually in tandem with the FBI, would sometimes ask for wiretaps on (almost always) foreigners we believed were out to damage the nation. Yes, there was a FISA Court, and that court usually approved our requests (not always, however; I remember one case that flabbergasted us when we were denied permission to tap the phones of a foreign “diplomat” from the Soviet bloc). But they were specific requests concerning specific individuals.