As FISA-related panic has exploded in the last week, I have watched and listened with a certain horror. Most of it is reserved for my fellow citizens, people who seem startled to learn that the government is listening, despite the fact that the Patriot Act, the law that authorized all of this monitoring of our communication, has been on the books for nearly 12 years.
In the aftermath of September 11, Americans were all too willing to sacrifice their freedom in exchange for unrealistic promises of order and safety. Very few of us objected in 2001 when the Bush Administration sought broad powers to monitor our communication and banking via the Patriot Act. Those of us who did object were scorned as naive and irresponsible; willing to risk innocent lives for such elusive notions as freedom and privacy. So the Patriot Act was successfully sold to the nation as a way to protect our collective lives and Congress cheerfully passed it into law. Most of us didn't object 12 years ago. Today's objections are too little, too late. They also miss an even larger point, which is that data mining is big business these days. And it is everywhere, not just in the hands of the government.
Add to that certain realities about our real level of privacy and I am even more confused by the current hand-wringing. Cell phone conversations, like cordless phone conversations, use radio waves and so they have never been particularly private. The government and our neighbors can listen without warrants and without our permission. All of those "discount" cards we use at grocery stores and big box retailers are also data-tracking systems that we voluntarily permit when we sign up for the cards. So-called "free" Internet sites (Facebook, of course, but also your Google mail, your Yahoo fantasy football team, and countless others) are only "free" because the companies are mining our data and sending us targeted adverts. In short, we are being watched. And, in fact, we have chosen this status for ourselves. It turns out that our privacy is sacrosanct until Target offers us a 5% discount and then we sell our souls along with the knowledge of what kind of dish detergent we use.