Sliding along the slippery continuum

7 Jun

images-1I’ve ranted here before about the fallacy of the slippery slope, offering, instead, a metaphor about finding the balancing point on a continuum between values that sometimes conflict.

But the revelations this week about the NSA and FBI collecting masses of phone and Internet records – and, in the case of the Internet, at least, probably actual data, too – is almost enough to drive me over the edge of the slippery slope. Security and privacy are shoving each other back and forth on the continuum, and it’s frightening.

Sen. Lindsey Graham says those of us who are not breaking laws have nothing to worry about. Who cares if the government knows or can easily find out that I’m Skyping with my family or calling my barber or my friends or the local pizza parlor? On a practical level, the senator is probably right. Unless you’re the victim of mistaken identity – and that can occasionally happen – this isn’t a problem.

But what’s the next step on the continuum between security and liberty? Do we let the government slide a little farther to the security end of the scale and start watching for who’s calling or emailing or hitting the website for a tea party organization?  Or the ACLU? Or the NRA? Or Americans for Peace?

Even if we assume that today’s executive and legislative branches, in all their dysfunctional glory, truly do intend to use all the data they are collecting only to protect us from terrorist attacks, it would be easy for the gigantic government apparatus to get used to this kind of thing and just keep following it to the next step and the next.

Take the recent example of lower-level IRS employees letting politics enter into their regulatory work. It was not an official policy, but the bureaucracy is so big that the policy-makers and enforcers never even knew it was happening. To the rank-and-file employees, it just seemed like a logical extension of the work they were already doing.

And government intrusion on the basis of political viewpoints has happened before, notably when Nixon targeted his enemies during the Watergate scandal and when the FBI bugged Martin Luther King’s hotel rooms during the civil rights movement. But the amount of data available today and the ease with which it can be accessed is exponentially greater than it was in the 1960s and ‘70s.

The ease with which this so-called metadata can be analyzed is also so simple as to make the notion of privacy almost laughable.

Then add to that the secrecy the FISA court is allowed to use. A person being investigated is not even allowed to know it’s happening, can’t even claim in the courts that he is being harmed by some government action because, legally, he doesn’t know the government has taken any action.

I admit I was consciously relieved when the year 1984 came and went without George Orwell’s horrific vision coming true. Now I’m beginning to think it may just have taken an extra 40 years to get us closer to that terrifying Orwellian dystopia.

Media need to keep watching and publicizing these kinds of threats to privacy.  The government needs to rein in the bureaucracy. The Congress needs to rethink FISA. Bottom line: We need to find a new balancing point between security and privacy/freedom on a continuum that is actually beginning to look a little bit slippery itself.

Of course, I don’t want to die in a terrorist attack. But it’s equally horrifying to think about living in fear of my own government. And you and I are only safe from abusive tyranny if everyone is safe, protected by the Constitution and laws.

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One Response to “Sliding along the slippery continuum”

  1. Barney McCoy June 11, 2013 at 6:19 pm #

    When good does evil in its struggle against evil, it becomes indistinguishable from its enemy. ~ T.S. Elliot

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