12 Points About The Snowden Affair


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snwden

The Internet is alive with arguments over the nature of the so-called Snowden affair.  I certainly have my opinions on the matter.  I don’t expect everyone to agree with me.  But I do expect that anyone who wishes to engage me on this topic bring a useful argument or perspective to the table; because, frankly, I find that most people –on both sides of the argument– haven’t taken the time to educate themselves on the issues, the technologies, or the historical contexts, to craft a cogent position.

Maybe that sounds arrogant of me, but frankly I’m tired of having to repeat myself whenever someone makes the same tired and lazy comments in response to anything I say.  So I’ve decided to summarize my perspectives here.  If you want to comment, go ahead.  But please have something interesting to say.

My positions are born of both my beliefs and my profession.  I am, professionally, an epidemiologist, therefore a data scientist. And my primary research these days is in ethics, causing me to think incessantly about how we functionally and philosophically contextualize rights.    The media has focused mostly on the collection of digital communication data.  My bias is toward the data processing power that access to that data brings; and I think that that’s a perspective that’s been missing in most analyses.

Still, I don’t have all the facts and I don’t know all the laws and all the history.  I’m working from what I have read, which is a fair extent.  But if I make any factual errors, I am certainly open to acknowledging them. So I trust you will point them out to me.

Let me be clear about this: I am not interested in having an argument.  If you don’t think the NSA controversy is a big deal, then that’s your right and I respect your position.  Go home and enjoy your life.  I’m not interested in convincing you otherwise, beyond the presentation of the points that I’ve expressed below. By the same token, I expect you to respect my right to feel that this is a big deal, especially since I’ve taken the time to lay out my reasons below.

It’s astounding to me that I even needed to write that.  But that’s where we are in public discourse these days.

1. What’s this all about?

Go Google “Edward Snowden” then come back here.  To summarize: Snowden was a contractor working on behalf of the National Security Agency (NSA)  in the USA.  He “leaked” the fact that the NSA were compiling large databases on both foreigners and pretty much all US citizens for the purposes of being sensitive to potential security threats.  A warrant for his arrest was subsequently made. As of my writing this, Snowden is on the run and is seeking asylum in another country.

(Oh, and Snowden has an uber-hot, pole-dancing girlfriend.  You’re welcome.)

 

2. Is Snowden a traitor?

I suppose there’s a legal argument that he is– if in fact he broke a federal secrets law whose violation would, by definition, label his actions as treachery.  That’s a technical argument.

But what I would like to get across in this post is that we need to look beyond the technical to the philosophical.  I argue that there is evidence that he shared information with the public for the purposes of protecting and strengthening the people.  In that sense, he was acting as the best kind of patriot.  A patriot is someone who acts in the best interests of his people, not of his state.  The state is not the people and is not the nation.

This is the one instance in which I feel that Snowden’s intent is relevant.  His intent, as I see it, was not traitorous, therefore he is not a traitor.

 

3. Is Snowden a hero?

Frankly, I don’t care.   I think his actions were heroic.  And if an heroic action makes one a hero, then so be it.

But I refuse to allow the discussion of this issue to be derailed by a focus on the man Edward Snowden.  Some will point to his change of heart, how he used to be quite critical of “leakers”, and how he might just be a showboating low-performer who is seeking self-aggrandizement.

But none of that matters, except to the extent that how we treat him affects how future “heroes” might manifest.

The scrutiny and demonization he has endured in the public eye distract us from the meat of his message.  Consider then the character requirements for a truly unimpeachable whistle-blower.  If only the perfect can ever bring us important news, then we are destined to languish in ignorance.  None of us would fare well under the scrutiny of a media which seeks to find flaws and weaknesses in our pasts and characters.

So I implore you to forget about the man Edward Snowden for the moment, and just focus on the implication of what he has shared with us.

 

4. Is what the NSA doing illegal?

For the purposes of this argument, let’s say no, none of it is illegal.

Mind you, their actions include the wire-tapping of people not under suspicion or indictment of criminal behaviour, and other types of direct surveillance.  But the most divisive element of the leak is that the NSA is compiling metadata in such a way that intimate aspects of our personal behaviours can be deduced.  This includes the reading of email and posts on our supposedly personal social media sites, such as Facebook, and –more succinctly troubling to me– the linkage of records that age-old policies have long prevented from being linked.

The wire-taps are cleared through a secret court system called FISC (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court), which is empowered to determine whether the investigation of someone not charged with a crime is permissable. Let me add that this includes people who are not even under suspicion of a crime, so long as their surveillance might lead agents to information about the subjects’ acquaintances, who are the true targets of suspicion.

In fact, since 9/11 a host of publicly-known citizen-surveillance efforts have been on the books.  The NSA program, “PRISM”, that Snowden “leaked” is merely their latest incarnation.  Just because it’s been with us for a while, and just because many of us have known about it, doesn’t mean we can’t still be upset by it.

So no, let’s say that none of this is technically illegal.

But it might just be unconstitutional. I’m not a constitutional scholar, so I won’t go into detail here, except to say that the US constitution is a profound and important document that provides philosophical guidance on the limitations of power on the state.  Expending taxpayer resources on the intrusion into the lives (e.g., personal conversations) of people who are neither charged nor suspected of crime, and doing so without transparent oversight and public accountability, violates the spirit of several sections of that sacred document.

Put the constitution aside and let’s just submit that all of the NSA’s actions were legal.  If these actions are legal, then what’s the big deal?

Well, just because something is legal, that doesn’t make it right…  Especially if the problematic party ( the state) is the one who decides what is legal in the first place.

Consider an extreme example.  It is believed that several Medieval monarchies enjoyed a law in which the king or lord had the right to essentially rape any woman in the realm on her wedding night.  That was the law. It was called “droit du seigneur” or “prima nocte.” It’s convenient that the law was written by the man who got to do this heinous thing.  Looking back from the safety of history, we would say that someone who refused to acquiesce to this barbaric law was a hero and a champion.  Of course, he had supposedly good reasons for that law, which was no doubt sold to the people as somehow being in their best interest.

If the state passed a law today stating that any male federal agent was legally permitted to have sex with any female citizen in the country, whether she wished it or not, how would you feel? I hope you’d feel that the law was improper, and that you’d resist it, even if it, too, was sold to you as somehow being in your best interest.

What if this law was passed in secret, and the sex acts performed in secret, with all the victims forced in some way to remain silent afterward?  Would you not want a whistle-blower to tell us of this horrible –yet legal— act that the state was perpetrating against its own people?

Obviously, I’ve chosen an extreme and unlikely scenario to get the idea across.  But the bottom line for me is that when talking about the NSA spying on citizens, it doesn’t matter that it’s legal.  It only matters that it’s wrong.  Don’t forget that every horrible thing ever done by a modern state to its people –the atrocities of Nazi Germany, the genocide committed by American and Canadian governments against Native people, etc– was technically legal.  And in each case, the offending law was sold to the people as a security necessity.

So please stop coming at me with the “well it’s legal so it’s okay” argument.  That’s just stupid.

 

5. They’re using public data, so what’s the big deal?

Each of us has data stored in separate government-sponsored banks: taxation, housing, education, living arrangements, countries we’ve visited, books we’ve borrowed from the library, people we’ve married and divorced, STI tests we’ve taken, depression pills we’ve been prescribed, abortions we’ve had, insurance claims, IQ tests we’ve performed poorly on, children we’ve created, vehicles we’ve bought, parking tickets we’ve received, places we’ve worked, petitions we’ve signed, etc.

In addition, we have personal data stored in non-governmental banks: social media sites on which we enjoy the bulk of our social lives these days, dating sites that track the kinds of intimacies we enjoy, book stores that track the ideas we like to be fed, credit cards that track every item we consume, employers’ records that tell when we are absent, emails we send to everyone, etc.

In fact, we are not permitted to not have personal data in such databanks.  Even living in a shack in the woods and hunting your own game, in an attempt to “remain off the grid”, might be technically “illegal” if you don’t also have some sort of government ID that prevents you from being escorted off as a squatter.

In short, whether intentionally or by circumstance, we have no choice but to be in a multitude of databases, some public and some not-so public.

Ever see someone being arrested?  Notice the pains the cops take to keep the perpetrator safe and uninjured after he’s been cuffed? (Well not always, but usually.)  This can be because (a) the cops are nice folks, (b) they’re afraid of being sued if the perp gets hurt, and (c) there’s an expectation that when a person has no choice but to be put under state (police) control, the state is responsible for not abusing that control.

The same principle applies here.  Since the state gives us no choice but to be in these databases, the state is ethically responsible to not abuse our presence in those databases.  Abuse includes the linking of databases at the level of the individual, to reveal characteristics that were never intended to be shared.

I think that’s what most people are missing about this issue: the existence of the data is half of the story.  The power to link them is the other half.  I will revisit this point later below.

 

6. If you don’t want something to be public, don’t put it there!

I find this to be such an unbelievably imbecilic position that I’m tempted to just give this one a single word response:   Wow.

First of all, our modern society has very few options for communication not to be public.  Someone actually said to me that if I don’t want the NSA reading my email, I should send personal letters by snail mail.

First of all, why the fuck should I have to send anything by snail mail? The world doesn’t work that way anymore.  I’m a member of a technological civilization with all the rights that that membership includes, including the use of its communication conduits to conduct my personal affairs, as every institutional actor has been encouraging us to do for years, for reasons of efficiency, cost control, and environmental health.

Second, how naive is it to think that if you’re targeted for investigation that they won’t also read your physical snail mail?  Need legal cover for this act of surveillance?  Well, if email is owned by the email provider, then snail mail is owned by the postal service;  a quick swish of a legal pen makes it so, perhaps even by one of the non-transparent FISC courts.

Well then, for personal talks, we should use the phone, right?  See wire-taps above; they already have licence to listen to your calls, even if you haven’t committed a crime.  I guess, then, that we’re back to carrier pigeons.

The issue here that so many miss is that the NSA isn’t just reading our email, it’s reading our personal communication that just happens to be in electronic form.  The medium is relevant only in that it makes their action easier; a less mine-able medium only slows, doesn’t prevent the action, because not all databases are electronic.  Believe it or not, I know people who are okay with the government reading our email, but would freak out if they were also reading our physical mail and courier service.  I hope that you, gentle reader, can see that those two media are essentially the same in all the relevant ways except the ease with which the interception is done.

Lastly, I take issue with this growing acceptance that we must surrender the public space to those who wish to intrude upon us.  “It’s in the public, so you should expect them to examine it” is an asinine, defeatist, and anti-intellectual position.

Know what else is public? Sidewalks are public.   If you’re a big breasted woman walking on the sidewalk, I’m free to stare at your breasts for as long as the two of us are walking together on the same sidewalk.  I can walk backwards, 4 feet in front of you, so that I get the best view.  In fact, I can stare at them all the way to your place of work, which I now know because I publicly followed you there.  I can wait on the public sidewalk and follow you home, because doing so is also done publicly.  Maybe I follow your children, too.  Maybe I watch you and follow you for days.

Creepy, right?  But it’s all done in the public, so adherents to the “well, it’s public” argument may argue that you should expect this kind of  behaviour and just “suck it up”.  Maybe that doesn’t bother you.  Well, maybe I’m pleasuring myself to your image when I get home?  Okay, maybe that doesn’t bother you.

But maybe … just maybe… I’m compiling information on you until I do something truly horrible.

I collected public data about you, just by being on a public sidewalk; and I hypothetically used those data to do you harm.  As a society, we do not stand for that. We have anti-stalker laws.  You can call the cops and have my pervy ass arrested.  And rightly so.

Bottom line: we are all entitled to do things in public, and society knows better than to allow others to violate our rights of autonomy, comfort, safety, and privacy… even while in public.

When our personal communication is in the public —and by public, I ironically mean encrypted, password-protected email files that the NSA has decided it has a right to crack and access– society knows better than to allow others to use that information in a way that violates our privacy.

To summarize this point: just because an aspect of your life or communication is ostensibly in the “public”, that does not obviate a need and an expectation for others –i.e., the state– to not abuse the ease with which they can access it.  It’s called being a good citizen and acting ethically.

 

7. I have nothing to hide, so why should I care that the government is collecting metadata on me?

Maybe my impatience for this question stems from my profession.  As an epidemiologist, my life is in the linking and massaging of databases. We can do wonderful and horrible things with this ability; and I fear the public isn’t quite aware of the awesome power of this skill.

If you take nothing away from this blog post, take this: every one us, no matter how innocent we think we are, has something to hide.

What if you’re a closeted homosexual living in a very conservative society, with friends and family who won’t accept your lifestyle?  It’s not very difficult, given sufficient access to the metadata described above, to ascertain your sexual orientation with >90% certainty. Suddenly we’ve discovered a vulnerability on your part, that is filed away in case we need to compel your behaviour.

What if you’re curious about Islam, because it’s in the news, so you get the Koran out of the library, like I did recently.  And what if you’ve developed an interest in model rockets, as I did recently, so you order some explosive rocket parts on Ebay. And what if, like me, you have a fascination with ancient Byzatine history, so –like me– you take a trip to the Turkey to see the Hajia Sofia church.  And what if you’re worried about your countrymen dying in foreign wars, so you sign some anti-war petitions and demonstrate against your country’s continued presence in Iraq and Afghanistan?  Data linkage quickly puts you on a terrorist watch-list, even though that sort of behaviour has never ever crossed your mind. Without the ability –that only the NSA has acquired– to link those very separate and unrelated databases, it is unlikely that anyone would have ever reached the false conclusion that you have terrorist sympathies.

So you’re on a watch list, so what?  Well, suddenly you’re experiencing added scrutiny at airports, so much so that one of your passions –travel– becomes unpleasant, and your quality of life has suffered.  Suddenly you can’t get that security clearance you need for your dream job, and your career stagnates.  God forbid you ever meet an actual “person of interest” at a book reading or demonstration, and are photographed with him; suddenly you’d be perceived a cell member and possible imminent threat!

All because of what?  Because you read a book, shopped on Ebay, took a vacation, and exercised your right to political expression.

 

8. Really? That’s the worst case scenario?  Doesn’t sound so bad to me

Believe it or not, history is rife with examples of state abuse of metadata, usually targeting the innocent.  I talked about some of them in this article.  There’s a pay wall blocking access to that piece, so some of its content is available in this blog post.

To quickly summarize of two of the more heinous examples: census and housing data were linked by the new computer technology of the age by the 1930s Nazi government in order to identify and locate Jews for obvious nefarious purposes.  And a variety of databases, including the census, were used by US Homeland Security to identify and “monitor” Arab-Americans post-9/11 who had committed no crimes.

So is the NSA planning on rounding up a certain demographic and putting them in concentration camps?  Obviously, I doubt it.  But I recall a conversation I had with a government ethicist just two weeks ago.  I asked her about the morality of the state compelling citizens to share personal information under penalty of criminal action, as in the case of the mandatory census.  She said that such compulsion is ethically defensible insomuch as we have faith that the government is acting in our best interests.

(Refer above to argument #5, in which the state, by virtue of requiring these data of us, is assumed to be acting responsibly.)

She quickly added, “I admit that that assumption is increasingly tenuous.”

I argue that history has shown time and again that the state has abrogated its position as a trustworthy custodian of involuntarily collected data.  We can therefore no longer assume that the state will always act in our best interests, especially if those interests conflict with its own interests.

 

9. How arrogant are you to think that you’re so important that the NSA cares what’s in your emails?

Fuck off. You don’t know what’s in my emails.

More to the point, even if I have “nothing to hide”, as the low-brows keep harping, why should I tolerate such an extreme power grab?  What if the state claimed the power to walk into your house anytime it wanted, punch your wife and kids in the gut, shit on your carpet and leave? They say it’s unlikely that you’d be targeted for such an action, and, in truth, it’s vanishingly improbable that you’d be interesting enough to warrant such a violation.  Well, doesn’t it offend you that they even claimed that power in the first place?

Some of you probably think I’m horribly alarmist by drawing such absurd parallels. How on Earth do I dare compare compiling metadata with physical abuse and defecating on the new Persian rug?

I do so probably because I’m a data scientist who perceives that claiming unfettered access to separately collected datasets for the purposes of linkage is far more awesome a tool for personal violation and destruction than any mere physical assault can confer.

Also, I fear that people who feel that they are too uninteresting to warrant attention don’t really understand the awesome computing power that is now in civilization’s hands.  You don’t have to be interesting.  The machine will read your metadata and scrutinize your characteristics anyway,  because it’s not a particularly large drain on computing resources, and it’s easier to just do it.

 

 

10. If you’re not doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?

First, as mentioned above, everyone has something to hide.  Remember that time you shoplifted when you were 10, but the court proceedings were sealed and supposedly expunged from your record? Surprise! That and those unpaid parking tickets suddenly cost you that promotion!

What’s that, you say? The NSA wouldn’t use metadata to make hiring decisions, but just for detecting potential security threats? Well, we’ve already established that none of this is illegal, so what’s to stop them from one day licencing their linked metadata megabanks to third parties? Nothing, as far as I can tell.

Second, once the data has been collected and its links made, then the  databanks exist and they always will.  This is a source of awesome power for a future, less circumspect state to make horrific moves.  When the pre-Nazi German government first collected ethnicity and location data, they did not and could not foresee the rise to power of a lunatic who would use that information to kill millions.  The NSA might innocently use their metadata to detect genuine terrorists intent on doing harm.  But how will it be used in the future by another government? Perhaps to identify individuals who are opposed to the current regime?  Doesn’t that sound ominous?

And third, if the state is not doing anything wrong, what does it have to hide? Why a manhunt against a whistle-blower like Snowden?

The “don’t worry if you’ve done nothing wrong” is among the more chilling, paternalistic and –dare I say it– Orwellian phrases that has made its way into the modern public lexicon… and for so many reasons.  Right now, data mining is used, supposedly, to identify imminent threats to national security.  As computer technology improves and our society gets more comfortable with the idea, “mission creep” will set in.  Soon the technique will be used to detect likely tax cheats (link purchases databases with income databases and do the math).

Well that doesn’t sound too bad. Get those tax cheaters! Well now, who do you think they’re going to find, the rich people who make large purchases through escrow intermediaries, or the average dude who does it the old fashioned way?  Metadata techniques are biased toward “catching” the middle and lower-middle classes, because it is we who cannot afford to be left out of public databases.

What happens in the future when, as always happens at least once in every generation, a hyper-moralistic and conservative government comes to power? How tempting will it be for them to link your chlamydia infection with a business trip? Suddenly you’re flagged as a likely adulterer.  I hope your imagination can take you the rest of the way to how that scenario plays out.

No need to be so extreme with my examples.  Very simply, by linking enough unrelated databases, I can figure out that you’re probably not as healthy as you think you are.  You’ve been to the doctor more than most people your age (maybe you’re just health-minded, but that doesn’t come up in visitation data).  You’ve taken one too many international flights.  You’re not in a relationship. Your reading books that are typically read by depressed people.  You’re buying increasingly perishable grocery items (indicating a lack of long term planning.) You’re not a churchgoer (relevant since religiosity is often correlated with a less dangerous lifestyle), etc.  Suddenly your healthy insurance premiums skyrocket, and you can’t afford life insurance, and thus your quality of life declines substantially.

No, the NSA didn’t do that to you.  But here’s my point: once you allow the state to take down the barriers to linking these unrelated, and largely inaccessible (by non-state actors) datasets, then the links exist.  And once they exist, there’s no telling where they will end up.  Because in tough economic times, the temptation to licence that rich, rich, dataset to the private sector will be too great to be ignored.

 

 11. If you want to keep something private, don’t send it electronically!

I’ve sort of addressed this point already above.  But I hear this sentiment so often, that I think it deserves a special section.

First, if I know that I want to keep something from prying eyes, then sure; I will try to keep it physical and off of any mine-able servers.  As mentioned above, however, physical mail is, in many jurisdictions, legally indistinguishable from email: if the state claims access to the latter, then it also does so to the former.  And if it doesn’t yet, it can easily do so with the swish of a pen.

But the key part here that I fear most people are missing is that none of us has any idea which parts of our personal data might harm us in the future.

For example, it would never occur to me to not send a “Happy Birthday” email to my friend in Syria.  But that gets added to my mined data, to be linked the list of contacts with Arab-sounding names in my Google and LinkedIn accounts, and perhaps with my travel history, and with the “Eid Mubarak” Muslim holiday greeting I posted on Facebook, and my reading list and educational history to computationally heighten the chances that I’m a terror risk.

In other words, it’s the linking of databases that suddenly makes all of our banal communication, whether we think it’s private or not, or interesting or not, into profiling tools that presume to reflect who we are, where our allegiances lie, and the degree to which our state can trust us.

If this is not offensive to you, then I must conclude that nothing I can describe relating to this issue will incite you.

 

 12. If you don’t have any solutions, stop complaining!

I can’t believe a friend actually said this to me, regarding this very crisis.  It’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard from an otherwise educated and intelligent person.

First of all, every one of us has a natural right to be angry about a situation without knowing exactly how to get out of it.  The greater idiocy is in not sounding the alarm that something is wrong.

“I have cancer and I’m angry about it.”

“Can you cure cancer? No? Then stop your whining!”

It’s the sort of moron logic that Donald Trump always employed on The Apprentice:

Contestant #1: “Our task was to make a promotional video for Bunny Brand personal lubricant.”

Trump: “So what did you do?”

Contestant #1: “We made a video of little furry bunnies being anally violated with a big black dildo that was coated with the competitor’s lubricant, to show how much better our brand is.”

Trump: “That’s a horrible idea.  Was it your idea?”

Contestant #1: “Yes :(”

Trump: “Did no one object to it?”

Contestant #2: “I did.”

Contestant #1: “She did.  But she didn’t have any better ideas.”

Contestant #2: “It’s true. I didn’t have any other ideas.  But I knew that a bunny buggery video was definitely not the way to go.”

Trump: “I hate it when people complain without solutions.  Contestant #2, you’re fired!”

Seriously, that’s how almost every Trump boardroom plays out.

And second, not everyone has the time, education, or perspective to know how to formulate solutions at a high level.  It’s a horrible, classist position that fails to acknowledge the rights of the less empowered to express their anger.  An uneducated factory worker probably isn’t fortunate enough to know about the policies and economic theories that keep him earning below a living a wage.  But that doesn’t mean he’s not entitled to be righteously furious about it.

Similarly, most people don’t know the nuances of big data analysis policies; not just uneducated factory workers.  But it upsets many.  They have a right to be angry.  They have a right to be loud and angry, until someone who does understand how it all works hears enough of their anger to be able to express it in a more useful manner.  For many of us, who are not experts in data access legalism, the leading expert is Glenn Greenwald, one of the smartest men currently writing about this issue.

So what’s the point of anger without immediate solutions?  First, we all need time to process how we feel about an offense, particularly a governmental offence.  We share our anger and take the time to work through the details in our minds.  We express our anger to see who else feels sort of the same way, and if anyone has a good reason to not be angry. ( I said GOOD reason.)  Then when a sufficiently large community of angry people arise, and thought leaders like Greenwald are identified from among them, then the solutions will be proposed.

The Snowden story broke last month, so I’m sorry if I can’t formulate all the policy solutions to a massive global conspiracy crisis in one month. (Insert sarcastic tone in your head.)

So, to all of you out there: the next time someone says to you, “Don’t complain if you’ve got no solutions”, belt ’em right in the mouth.  It’s an offensive, stupid, and asshole-ish thing to say.

 

 13. So you’ve got no solutions?

I didn’t say that.  I just said that expecting every angry person to have a solution is well beyond stupid.  I have several ideas for what needs to happen.  But I’m going to give you just three:

 

1. Make the linking of unrelated databases illegal.  Several datasets, such as health surveys, have in their fine print a requirement that all data remain confidential.  Include an option for the subject to refuse to allow his data to be linked to others at the individual level.  Obviously, there is some nuance needed here, since genuine, innocent research depends upon data linkage, as well.  (For example, linking a health survey with hospital administrative data to figure out in which part of the country the respondent lives.) But to link health survey data to, say, taxation data is unusual enough that it deserves an “opt-out” checkbox.

As a data scientist, the state does not permit me to link large public datasets to the extent that I will be able to identify individuals.  I think that restriction needs to be put on the state itself, as well.

2. Argue for no security exclusions to ever be permitted.  In times of distress, a state quickly moves to revoke all the rational limitations placed upon it by freedom-loving citizens.  There must be legal blocks from allowing that to happen.

3. Educate the public about (a) the power of data linkage, and (b) their right to exist in the public without having that vulnerability abused.  In short, we are not in the wrong for expecting our data to be respected; they are in the wrong for not respecting it.

 

One last thing I want to say, is that ultimately the insult that state surveillance at this level offers is about fear.  It’s true that pretty much none of you reading this will be immediately, measurably impacted by this surveillance.  That’s how tyranny takes root: the institutions of control that are put into place are done so incrementally, such that our day-to-day lives remain largely unaffected… until they are profoundly affected.

For me, the immediate sadness percolates through the jokes.  “Oh we shouldn’t post that cartoon on Facebook because the NSA is reading! Ha ha!” But behind the laughter, even subconsciously, is a little nervousness.  Why should I be nervous about ordering a book of Islamic poetry from Amazon.com? Why should I be nervous about wanting to watching a Youtube documentary about the history of explosives?  Why should I be nervous about posting Facebook status updates showing my distaste for the war?  Why should I be nervous when lazily shopping for cheap travel destinations, and curiously clicking on the links that take me to the Middle East?

And I bet some of you are feeling it, too: an ever so slight –almost imperceptible– hesitation to really be who we are, for fear and realization that a faceless state is judging us and amounting evidence of our wrongdoing.

I am reminded of  fake quote from satirical site The Onion, shortly after 9/11, in which Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said, “In this time of national crisis, a time when our most cherished freedoms are threatened, all Americans… must watch what they say.”  It was funny back then.  Now it’s kinda real.  And not so funny.

We are past the Orwellian phase and into the Kafka phase.

 

So there you have it.  Twelve points about the Snowden affair.  Like I said before, if you still don’t care, good for you.  I wish you well and envy you your calm.  And if you have something constructive to say, go for it.  But if all you want to say is that this isn’t a big deal and we should stop talking about it, then you’re not really contributing anything, are you?  Got it?  Good.