On Sunday night, at the stroke of midnight, will a shroud of fear be lifted from freedom-loving Americans?
Let’s assume that a last minute deal isn’t reached in Congress and the surveillance powers of the Patriot Act are indeed allowed to expire.
This might not amount to the kind of statutory protection of privacy that critics of the NSA have hoped for, and yet physically pulling the plug on the actual mechanisms of mass surveillance will highlight the difference between living in a world where all our information gets sucked into data warehouses and a world in which it remains a tad more secure under a blanket in the Cloud — or wherever else we’ve chosen to keep it hidden.
Of course, a lot of people won’t believe the plug got pulled — certainly not at a moment when they believe the Federal government is about to impose martial law in Texas — and so the reported suspension of surveillance will more likely reinforce their paranoia.
But for those who believe that a measure of freedom lost has been reclaimed — at least for now — how will that freedom be enjoyed?
That’s where I draw a blank.
I’ve seen the polls in which some people say that NSA surveillance has changed how they use email and made them inclined to censor themselves and yet I’ve always been baffled by these reactions.
Most NSA critics who have studied the issue are acutely aware that mass surveillance is virtually useless for gathering information about terrorism, so how exactly might it accumulate useful information about you or me?
From Sunday to Monday, we will cross over from a world in which we are watched but unseen, into a world in which we will remain unseen. If that seems like a profound transition, I’d say your fixation on personal freedom has become a distraction from much more serious issues that truly shape our world.
There are plenty of good reasons to be opposed to mass surveillance — including the principle that no democratic government should claim the right to spy on its own citizens. But we have less reason to be concerned about intrusions on our privacy than that over-funded intelligence agencies have exploited public fear and manipulated Congress in order to create programs of negligible value.
If mass surveillance is about to quietly die, maybe the lesson that can be drawn is that the threat it supposedly posed and the need it supposedly met, were both wildly overstated.
The NSA’s appetite to gather information has always exceeded its capacity to use it, but the same cannot be said for Google or Facebook. The NSA never was and never could become more than a flea on the back of a digital infrastructure that primarily serves Silicon Valley.
Most of the information that is being gathered about each and every one of us is not being swept up in secret but dished out freely down what we have come to regard as lifelines connecting us to the world.
Rather than being subject to unwanted surveillance, we are far more subject to networks of dependence which affect what we want, what we expect, and how we live.
Big Brother is less inclined to breath down our neck than hold our hand. And if the grip feels too tight it’s because we’re afraid of letting go.