Since the passage of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 last week, it is now legal for the government to listen in on any American citizen without a search warrant as long as they say they are trying to find a terrorist. Then they have to apply for a certification. If the government doesn’t get the certification after 67 days, they are supposed to just stop listening. Of course the government was spying on citizens before the law was passed, but that’s another topic.
The passage of the FISA amendment is not the only example of our eroding privacy. In a court ruling last week YouTube was ordered to turn over customer records about viewing habits to a court in order to prove something about a commercial marketing concern. Even though the Video Privacy Protection Act forbids revealing video materials requested by customers, it was not clear if YouTube would be permitted to provide the information with the identities concealed.
So what does that mean in the life of someone who, say, gets a new computer, to take a hypothetical case? Suppose someone buys a computer from Dell. Sometime after powering up their new computer for the first time they would see the following popup asking for permission to monitor their viewing habits:
Please indicate your preferences below and click next to continue.
Dell offers a suite of technical support tools designed to provide you with customized technical content and maintenance tools information that are specific to your computer. To provide this support to you, Dell needs to collect your computer’s Service Tag and, on an ongoing basis, information about your system configuration( the hardware and software installed on your computer) and Dell support tool use data. Aside from your Service Tag, none of the system configuration or use data can be used to identify you.
You will enjoy a variety of personalized benefits if you allow Dell to collect the information described above. For example:
- your navigation of the Dell Support Center suite of tools will be easy and intuitive.
- Drivers and download pages will offer solutions and updates that are specific to the hardware and software on your system.
- Dell can send customized list of diagnostics and error fixes directly to your system.
- Dell can send you proactive technical support alerts that are relevant to your computer.
How reassuring. Somehow I don’t feel very reassured, though, especially since reading the text of the FISA amendment.
But what about the privacy statement? Maybe it has something reassuring.
Here it is, under the heading “Disclosing Personal Information”:
We may disclose your personal information in connection with law enforcement, fraud prevention, or other legal action as required by law or regulation, or if Dell reasonably believes it is necessary to protect Dell, its customers or the public.
At least they tell you.
Not cooperating with the government’s unconstitutional spying would certainly leave the company unprotected. I mean, look at Qwest, that told the government they wouldn’t do anything illegal… Isn’t their CEO sitting in jail right now under some murky insider trading conviction?
I suppose my neighbors–and my old roommate–would tell me “you better HOPE they are listening in so they can catch any terrorists.” And the liberal bloggers who are now in an Obama lovefest/feeding frenzy would say “shut up, we have to elect Obama.” Or maybe the more pragmatic ones would point to the WordPress ban in Turkey or the cooperation of American companies with Chinese government censorship–this is pretty small potatoes compared to what happens in other countries. Yes, it is. And I have lived in those other countries and been glad for the presumed surveillance. But this is MY country . It just doesn’t feel right.
What does it matter anyway if some pimply-faced kid is sitting in a room full of optical cables munching on a donut and checking out my browsing habits, or whatever it is they do. I mean, it’s not like I use the internet to look at porn or research explosives or mount Denial Of Service attacks on anyone who publishes cartoons I don’t like. And I don’t receive emails from the Middle East all that often.
Well, I just don’t like it, that’s what.
I was always taught that reading someone else’s mail is rude and unthinkable, that privacy is important, and that respecting other peoples possessions is the grease that keeps our culture turning.
When I was in high school back in the dark ages, I used to have a Peanuts cartoon taped to my notebook–inside so no one in authority could see it. The comic was Peppermint Patty sitting outside the principal’s office after coming up against the Dress Code. Yes, in those days we had a rule against female students wearing slacks in our school, even in the winter when it was forty below. And as far as wearing a black armband on moratorium day, or a headband, or moccasins, don’t even ask. Peppermint Patty’s problem was her sandals. In the first frame Patty sits on a chair outside the principal’s office looking at her feet and saying, “These are nice sneakers, but I miss my sandals.” In the next frame, the bubble over Patty’s head says “snif”. In the last frame, Charlie Brown says, “All I know is any rule that makes a little girl cry has to be a bad rule.”
For years and years and years, humans have lived and breathed and used computers without the manufacturers of those computers having identifying information about them. I don’t think the world will come to an end if users don’t sign up for Dell’s program. These days, there’s too many new bad rules out there.
I realize this isn’t a grand marshalling of reasons against FISA that would move anyone who isn’t moved against FISA already. It’s more a quesiton of how I feel. But feelings have always been my first line of protection. How to spell a word–does it look right? Nine time out of ten, my feeling about a word will tell me if it’s mispelled. Change your answer on a test?–don’t do it! For me at least, my first gut reaction is always right. Got creepy feeling about a guy? Don’t date him, don’t be alone with him, don’t even get on an elevator with him. Cross the street, get out of his range of consciousness. Those nonverbal signals may be hard to explain, but they’re there for a reason. Don’t ignore your spider sense.
My favorite Chinese curse is , “may you live in interesting times.” These time are way too interesting. Oh, I know it’s all unconstitutional, things have shifted before like this during the Civil War, habeas corpus suspended and so forth, and they always shift back when the military threat is over. But something in the back of my mind keeps saying, this time what if, what if…”we have always been at war with….”