Thursday, April 9, 2015

Secrecy and Trust

I don't believe I have mentioned this before, but my wife and I enjoy the weekly HBO show hosted by John Oliver called "Last Week Tonight".  In addition to touching on the news of the previous week, his discussion topics are almost always relevant and interesting, especially considering his style; irreverence mixed with humor.  (I believe he cut his teeth on Jon Stewart's Daily Show).

This past week Oliver spent the majority of his show discussing the upcoming renewal of some of the more insidious sections of the Patriot Act, specifically, those sections dealing with the incredible power to collect personal information which was granted to organizations like the NSA.  Amazingly, Oliver punctuated his show with an interview in Moscow with Edward Snowden.  For those of you who don't know Snowden (and according to Oliver's random questioning of people in New York City, that is most of you), Snowden, while working as a consultant for the NSA, discovered then leaked large amounts of information pertaining to how the NSA can, and does, collect personal information from United States Citizens without their consent or knowledge.  In what I thought was some very pointed and specific questioning by Oliver, Snowden discussed his motives, the price he is paying for his revelations (he has been charged with violations of the Espionage Act so will be arrested upon entering the United States), how some of the information he leaked did harm to United States interests, and detailed how (using Oliver's sarcastic dic-pic scenario), the NSA can attain and retain pictures of a man's genitalia through any number of legal means without requiring any specific hint that said man's Johnson is a threat to national security.  While seemingly a silly example, the point is that any and all correspondence generated by US citizens are subject to retention under the various auspices of the Patriot Act.  (I assume that since my blog is viewed overseas, many of my posts may have been netted at some time in the past).

Notwithstanding the sheer scope of this intrusion, I find it interesting how, in the name of protecting freedom and liberty, we allow such violations of both our freedom and liberties.  Of course, it is fear that pushes us to these kind of seemingly contradictory decisions.  Clearly, the events of 911, sent shockwaves through the American psyche which, like a never ending scab, can be picked at and reanimated with the perception of a new threat to our way of life.  How far we will go to protect ourselves from our enemies, how much freedom we will sacrifice to be free, is still to be determined. 

Which brings us to the reauthorization date of June 1st.  Fortunately, through Snowden, organizations like the ACLU, and even comedians like John Oliver, there has been some public discussion on this issue.  Unfortunately, I am convinced that with news reporting that emphasizes the negative events in the world (especially Fox network which then blames the president for all those negative events), many Americans are convinced that this kind of spying is necessary.  I expect to hear any number of people saying "I have nothing to hide so I don't mind".  What many people don't realize is that the government uses companies like Google and Facebook as their deputies, and that while the average American might not have anything to fear when it comes to international espionage, we all have little secrets and indiscretions that we might not want to be made public should the info be dispersed in an unexpected way. 

To me, the bigger issue is who do we trust?  Currently, distrust of the United States government, fueled by the Fox Network's hate the president campaign, has resulted in an unprecedented rise in gun purchasing and ownership, as well as new laws, some proposed, some passed, which allow guns in our schools, public parks, and public rallies.  Some people seem to trust no one, yet somehow believe that if everyone had a gun thereby honoring the 2nd amendment, we would all be safer.  In some circles, we still trust business to do the right thing (through reduced regulations), yet there has also been a meteoric rise in background checks by perspective employers which includes credit checks and review of social media content.  We guard our financial info and identity by (rightly refusing to give out SS numbers over the phone) but routinely purchase products online despite the rash of big time hacking that has compromised many data bases of some large retail companies.   

To me, the interesting thing will be how our elected public servants choose to vote when reauthorization is addressed.  Republicans love national security issues but will be voting for extended powers to a government run by a president they do not trust.  Democrats know in their hearts that these privacy violations are serious but do not like to disagree with the leader of their party.

Curiously, with all this talk about security, a number of Republican lawmakers signed a letter sent to the leaders of Iran advising them that President Obama could not be trusted to comply with any kind of deal which limits Iran's capacity to create a nuclear bomb.  One would think that any treaty, even one with a party that we are reluctant to trust, which would limit the growth of nuclear weapon capability would be universally accepted as a positive step. 

Perhaps, in their constant fear state, some people think it best to allow the proliferation of nuclear weapons while reducing the privacy of American freedoms.  Or they just want to "nuke the bastards", thereby proving to Iran that we couldn't be trusted after all. 


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