Keywords, Keys and Words

In the aftermath of the NSA revelations, a number of websites suggested that the only way the public could reclaim its privacy was if everyone deliberately acted suspiciously.  This site, for example automatically generates sentences which uses key phrases words the NSA is looking for to overheat the system. One sample sentence is generates is, “leaving Tuscon for sick powder in CO! Crash with buds & ski like an avalanche! Clear the Interstate–ETA” or “The Spurs–Heat final was a shootout. SAS are smart but Miami’s power collapses their D and burned it w/ 3s”.

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Yep that’ll learn ’em.

Or maybe you can follow the advice of this video below. The key pitch is at the 24 second mark. “Along with the outrage at being spied on by the NSA comes a feeling of hopelessness.” What can anyone do about it? Well nothing except as they suggest, to lard  telephone conversations with gratuitous hot button key words.

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“Talk like a pirate day” has been superseded by “Talk like a terrorist by phone.”

But as Ed Epstein pointed out to me in an email, maybe the word the comedians are looking for to explain the acceptance of universal surveillance is not “hopelessness” but “indifference”. Epstein says that increasingly many devices and services, including our cell phones and computer applications, offer to track us. And we happily agree. We could  of course refuse or uncheck the “Enable GPS” box in the settings. But so lazy have we become in this age of uber-convenience that unclicking one more checkbox is just too much to ask. It’s an “undue burden”. Ed writes that to avoid they effort they just agree to being surveilled:

So they accept being tracked every 3 seconds in return for finding a nearby movie, friend, or pizza. Or consider the 450 million users of Gmail–the largest web-based email. All of them check their consent to having their emails read by Google, In return they get free archiving of their personal correspondence. Photographs, and documents. Or the billion users of Facebook. Almost all voluntarily abnegate their privacy by allowing their activities, affiliations, “likes,” and list of friends to be tracked, analyzed, sold, and archived. All this data is routinely available to local and federal law enforcement agencies via subpoena or search warrant in a criminal investigation (as I learned when I obtained Dominique Strauss Kahn’s phone records from the Manhattan DA’s office.) So are credit card records, EZ pass toll records, etc.

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Sam Adams (the revolutionary not the beer) would have been outraged. He argued that liberty is most frequently lost because people throw it away.

The liberties of our Country, the freedom of our civil constitution are worth defending at all hazards: And it is our duty to defend them against all attacks. We have receiv’d them as a fair Inheritance from our worthy Ancestors: They purchas’d them for us with toil and danger and expence of treasure and blood; and transmitted them to us with care and diligence. It will bring an everlasting mark of infamy on the present generation, enlightened as it is, if we should suffer them to be wrested from us by violence without a struggle; or be cheated out of them by the artifices of false and designing men. Of the latter we are in most danger at present: Let us therefore be aware of it. Let us contemplate our forefathers and posterity; and resolve to maintain the rights bequeath’d to us from the former, for the sake of the latter. — Instead of sitting down satisfied with the efforts we have already made, which is the wish of our enemies, the necessity of the times, more than ever, calls for our utmost circumspection, deliberation, fortitude, and perseverance. Let us remember that “if we suffer tamely a lawless attack upon our liberty, we encourage it, and involve others in our doom.” It is a very serious consideration, which should deeply impress our minds, that millions yet unborn may be the miserable sharers of the event.

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Maybe he was right. But do we care?

Adams lived in the days before dating apps and photo sharing. If he lived in 2013, Adams would have understood the sheer social impossibility of getting along without “sharing” you life. Unless you share yourself to as many strangers as possible in the modern world you’ve voluntarily consigned yourself to nothing. Show me a person whose Twitter feed is read by a dozen friends and I’ll show you a loser. Show me a Twitter account with 20,286 followers and I’ll show you Alec Baldwin’s.

Nobody cares about liberty any more when the alternative is fame. Besides, the mores have changed. People don’t care about “liberty” any more. We’re all used to not having any by now. Anyway, what is the NSA but Google with nothing held back, or alternatively what is Google but the free edition of the NSA?

Perhaps the only way to save freedom is to make it mandatory. Cass Sunstein and University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler actually propose this. They’ve advanced the notion of “choice architecture” which argues that unless you lead the horse to water it is unlikely ever to drink. “Faced with important decisions about their lives, people often make pretty bad choices—choices … Many people will take whatever option requires the least effort, Sunstein and Thaler say.” So you save them from themselves by ‘nudging them’.

“Human beings will often consider required choice to be a nuisance or worse, and would much prefer to have a good default, and, these tendencies toward doing nothing will be reinforced if the default option comes with some implicit or explicit suggestion that it represents the normal or even the recommended course of action. …

“A nudge … is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives,” they write. “To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level [in a school cafeteria line] counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”

Sunstein and Thaler acknowledge that nudging is paternalistic, but they believe it can be done without taking away freedom of choice. “We welcome you to our new movement,” they write, “libertarian paternalism.”

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“Libertarian paternalism”. How far is that from those old hoary chestnuts “war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength?” Well  chains aren’t restraints if you pay to put them on.


Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

Rebranding Christianity for $3.99

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99

No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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