A short while back, just before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempted Christmas bombing, I heard a couple of people discussing online privacy rights on one of the CNN talking head shows. One of them quoted with approval this statement by Google CEO Eric Schmidt “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” If intrusive surveillance of online activity might prevent the next 9-11, this commentator suggested, then most us would accept it as the necessary price of security.
Never mind that Schmidt himself doesn’t practice what he preaches. Google blackballed CNET reporters “in response to privacy issues raised by a previous story.” In a story about online privacy issues with Google, CNET had illustrated the problem by publishing “private” information about Schmidt (“his salary; his neighborhood, some of his hobbies and political donations”) it found by using—wait for it—Google.
Just as an aside, we need a technical term for the time interval it takes one of these “only the guilty need fear” types to get all outraged when their precious privacy is violated by someone using their own previously self-justified methods. The same cops who assure us that “you’ve got nothing to worry about if you’ve done nothing wrong” are oddly prone to stomping the shit out of someone capturing police misbehavior on video, for example, and have been known to make death threats against those who post said videos online. And I vaguely recall a story about a local police chief who, after securing a judge’s opinion that a citizen had no “reasonable expectation of privacy” regarding the contents of garbage put out on the curb, went ballistic when the local newspaper printed the contents of his own trash.
Never mind, also, how easy it is to access Google via one of the many online free proxy servers. If Al Qaeda’s masterminds are too stupid to cloak potentially incriminating web searches in that manner, it’s no wonder the U.S. announces another capture of their third-ranked leader every month or two.
No, never mind all that. From a purely practical standpoint, most of that information will probably be useless to our “protectors” until after the attack occurs, anyway. Remember the hoopla about Richard Clark’s warnings about imminent Al Qaeda attacks in August 2001, and the unprecedented levels of chatter before 9-11? Well, now the story comes out that Abdulmutallab’s dad contacted “the authorities” (gag) with a warning that “my Islamic extremist son’s gone bugshit insane and I’m afraid he’s going to hurt somebody.” The problem, according to unnamed intelligence officials quoted by Karen DeYoung and Michael Leahy at The Washington Post, is that “thousands of similar bits of information flow into the National Counterterrorism Center each week from around the world.” So the more “keywords” Looking Glass sends into the supercomputers in the NSC’s subbasements at Ft. Meade, the bigger the haystack to be sorted through. The broader the sweep of information-gathering, the more the system will be overwhelmed to the point of paralysis by useless information.
As crappy as the government is at processing data to prevent the unexpected, there’s one thing it’s great at using all that information for: harassing people it already considers political enemies. Imagine, if during Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare, the country had been covered with tens of thousands of public surveillance cameras hooked into computers with digital face-recognition software, or “know your customer” laws had required cashiers to swipe customer ID for all purchases; and imagine if all those video captures and bank account transactions were instantly checked against a database of Wobbly photos. Imagine if Hitler had had that technology after Kristallnacht.
All these “only the guilty need fear” assurances ignore a mastodon in the living room. They assume that the government is innocent, and that it means well. They ignore the possibility that whether you’re “guilty” depends on what the government defines as guilt from one week to the next. And to the state, “guilt” primarily means threatening the class interests it represents.
A lot of left-wing activists suddenly found out they were “guilty” in 1918. A lot of Jews who, for their entire lives, had minded their own business and treated others with unfailing civility, found out they were “guilty” under Hitler.
Regardless of whatever else she got wrong, Ayn Rand pretty well summarized things with this statement:
“The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.”
The very existence of a government, any government, is a direct threat to anyone with the natural will to survive. This is because its incentive structure drives it to constantly seek more power, criminalizing more and more in the process.
Only the guilty need fear. But never forget that YOU could wake up tomorrow and find yourself “guilty.”