Tap Tap Tap

Walking out of Grand Central Station, New Yorkers pass a Hyatt and a Kenneth Cole. The Hyatt is full of tourists. The Kenneth Cole storefront declares, "You're on a video camera over twenty times a day. Are you dressed for it?" We'd better be. Those creepy-eyed, ceiling-mounted black domes are ubiquitous in drug stores, retail outlets, and everywhere else.

On NSA Wiretapping

Walking out of Grand Central Station, New Yorkers pass a Hyatt and a Kenneth Cole. The Hyatt is full of tourists. The Kenneth Cole storefront declares, “You’re on a video camera over twenty times a day. Are you dressed for it?”

We’d better be. Those creepy-eyed, ceiling-mounted black domes are ubiquitous in drug stores, retail outlets, and everywhere else. ATMs are outfitted with cameras, as are most major buildings and even some streetlights (although this last is more likely in London than here). Our actions are tracked in a thousand other ways on a daily basis: phone calls are monitored to ensure “quality”; Radio Frequency Identification tracks product placement, sales, and even post-sale usage; and if you buy your New York MetroCard with a credit card, the MTA knows exactly when and where you’ve gotten on the train.

Go online and surveillance increases. Amazon knows every book ever purchased by every customer, Apple tracks music libraries against iTunes accounts, and no one quite knows what Google plans to do with the enormous backlog of contextual terms collected from users’ Gmail accounts.

Once this kind of information-gathering becomes a fact of life, it makes sense to make light of it in an ad. It also becomes easier for the government to justify its own surveillance. Perhaps this is why the New York Times’s revelation that the NSA, with President Bush’s authorization, has been conducting broad data-mining and wiretapping of American citizens since 2002 has made such a shallow impression on that same American public.

Of course, voices have been raised in opposition: The Times ran several articles suggesting the President’s authorization was illegal, and the New York Review of Books went further, publishing an open letter from Ronald Dworkin, David Cole, and sixteen other legal scholars detailing in specific and complicated terms the ways in which President Bush has overstepped his authority. Arlen Specter called for Congressional hearings, and Democrats eagerly pointed to a poll showing that 88% of Americans say they are concerned by the NSA surveillance. Nat Hentoff declared that President Bush has been”pillaging of the bill of rights.”

Compared to the outcry against domestic surveillance in the 1970s, though, public reaction has been sedate. Little being said today can compare to Senator Frank Church’s characterization of domestic wiretapping as “the capacity … to make tyranny total in America.”The backlash against “the abyss from which there is no return” hurt the Nixon Administration, the NSA and the FBI. There’s hardly anyone who would consider defending J. Edgar Hoover’s reputation; even Robert Novak has called him a”rogue and a lawbreaker.” These days, there’s more deference: witness the Times,for reasons no one seems able to explain or understand, sitting on the story for over a year.

Part of the reason for the tepid public response may be that the situation seemed unsurprising, even inevitable—we’ve had enough everyday experience of being watched to assume that it’s always happening. Politicians may still get worked up about it, but marketers know that we don’t much mind. Businesses are advised in the Los Angeles Times that tracking customers isn’t a problem: “As long as nobody uses that information against [consumers], they don’t have any problem as long as it makes the experience better.” And if corporations can collect previously private information to make our experience better, why can’t the federal government do the same? Although a majority of Americans are concerned about the NSA’s wiretapping, they’re mostly concerned about the possibility of abuse;another poll shows that fifty-eight percent support the wiretapping, as long as its use is restricted to suspected terrorists—i.e., “as long as nobody uses that information against them.”


This is the psychological reality exploited by the Bush Administration. When defenders rationalize the program, they generally start off with some legal obfuscation,and then make a quick pivot: the NSA program is necessary for national security; saving lives is worth the cost of curtailing civil liberties; and after all the government is only looking for terrorists. There may be costs involved, but the net social benefit is positive. Wiretapping is good for everybody.

In other words, good citizens want to be watched, because this means the terrorists are being watched. Richard Posner told the Washington Post’s online audience that having the NSA listen in on their phones shouldn’t necessarily be a cause for concern:

Are you worried about having a conversation of yours (say this conversation) recorded in a government database? Suppose that unbeknownst to you your neighbor is a terrorist,and you happen to mention his name in the conversation. A government computer picks up the name and learning from your conversation where he lives, arrests him. Would such an episode bother you? If so, why?

Posner’s argument about the NSA’s wiretapping is essentially technical: he claims that data-mining done by computer can’t be properly called surveillance, and since any actual wiretapping is the result of computer-determined “hot” numbers or emails, the eventual surveillance might as well be legal. He may be right, legally speaking: the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was written in1978, when neither dragnets nor data-mining existed in their current forms, and so didn’t need to be outlawed. But Posner supports the same claim as the Bush administration:citizens should happily restrict their rights and submit to being watched,because it’s good for everyone if they do.

So get watched or get terrorized. And Americans accept the terms of the debate. When a group of anti-war students at UC Santa Cruz was informed that the Pentagon had been tracking their movements, their response was far closer to resignation than surprise or even outrage. “It doesn’t surprise me because our own university has been spying on us since our group was founded,” Josh Sonnenfield, a member of Students Against War, told the New York Times. “This nation has a history of spying on political dissenters.” Sonnenfield may be right on this count. At any rate, he certainly assumes that somebody’s watching

Then there’s the reaction of Faye Crosby, a faculty member associated with the UC Santa Cruz student group. “It’s a waste of taxpayer money,” she said, “What are we a threat to?” Crosby’s argument makes a certain sense—she’s probably not much of a threat—but the terms she uses are precisely those the Bush Administration wants. Once you begin to weigh the question in this way, with “taxpayer money” on one side and the “threat” on the other, the outcome is swiftly decided. Who wouldn’t spend a few dollars to thwart terrorists?


It’s not so much that we need to be watched, though—we just need to assume we’re being watched. If the bad guys who want to collapse the Brooklyn Bridge assume that the NSA is breathing down their necks, it doesn’t matter whether this is actually true or not. At least, that’s what the Bush Administration is arguing now—originally, of course, they kept the wiretapping under wraps for years, ostensibly in order to keep those under surveillance from learning they were being watched. Now that the program has been disclosed, they need tojustify its continuance in the light of day, and that justification will have to be for wiretapping that terrorists do generally know about.

To do this, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales argues that the United States has a “long tradition of wartime enemy surveillance” that includes the interception and collection of international communications; Karl Rove claims that “if Al Qaeda is calling someone in America, it is in our national interest to know who they’re calling and why.” And yet it remains unclear exactly who is being listened to and why. The President has said that he’ll oppose laws meant to “expose the nature of the program” and General Michael V. Hayden, who ran the NSA at the time of the surveillance’s inception, has left things particularly undefined. Noting that he couldn’t”give details without increasing the danger to Americans,” Hayden said that surveillance was limited to communications the NSA has a “reasonable basis to believe involve Al Qaeda or one of its affiliates.”

The Bush administration claims that providing more information—defining this “reasonable basis,” for example—would endanger Americans, as it would more specifically inform the terrorists it intends to track that they’re being watched. It’s better if these individuals believe that the NSA might be listening at any given moment. As Hayden has admitted, though, “it’s the nature of intelligence that many tips lead nowhere, but you have to go down some blind alleys to find the tips that pay off.” Watching the terrorists will mean often watching innocent citizens. The Bush Administration doesn’t explain when, or how, or why—just that it could be happening. If we want the terrorists to feel watched, then we need to feel the same.

This is dangerously close to asking the American people to be paranoid. To be fair, the Bush administration hasn’t demanded that the American people fear for their liberty and livelihood at any given moment. The NSA merely suggests that citizens consider the possibility—when sending an email or making a phone call—that they may be watched by their government. But this is okay, since the effect will be to catch terrorists. This is a mild and diffuse paranoia, but a pervasive one.

The effects are evident already. The ACLU, in an ingenious counter move, has filed suit in Manhattan, alleging that the NSA has been wiretapping their phones and violating privileged conversations with legal clients of Middle Eastern origin. The ACLU admits that they don’t have any evidence to support their claim, but the likelihood is high—once such a program exists, why wouldn’t the ACLU be wiretapped?And if the government doesn’t need special evidence to spy on citizens, why should citizens need special evidence to sue in response? Remember: it’s not that the NSA will be watching, just that it’s possible. So, as Kenneth Cole would tell you: speak clearly. Wear socks. Smile.

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