Saturday, June 15, 2013

The World We Live In

In the early 90s, I was likely one of the few Americans working for a certain big Finnish IT company. In my case, it was part of a team in Helsinki writing user manuals for server and system software (very little of which I actually understood, it has to be said).

At some point, another American I’ll call James joined the company as a project manager. Apparently, he had been an exchange student here in his youth, and memories of those days had prompted him to make the unlikely move to relocate to a place where he had practically no connections.

He was, in some ways, the odd man out. He was older, unattached, and more buttoned-down than my other colleagues. And unlike the other expats I knew, he hadn’t moved to Finland because of romance, which was a bit rare in those days. This was long before the golden age of Finnish high-tech, when the chance of working at dynamic, cutting-edge firms (at least one in particular) was enough to draw smart, geeky foreigners, like James, to the cold, dark north.

Among ourselves, we joked that James must have been a spy. Remember, this wasn’t that long after the Cold War, when the working assumption among many was that Helsinki was a natural fault line for East-West espionage. (I still recall how the downtown office of the Teboil service-station chain was widely seen as a front for the KGB.)

I’m sure James was no spy, but with his deep roots in the IT world, he did know things. One conversation I remember from those days was when he explained the function of the super-secret National Security Agency, an outfit I’d probably never heard of before.

James described the giant dish antennas on the East Coast used by the big US telecommunications companies for the downlink of all trans-Atlantic phone traffic. He went on to tell about a second set of dishes directly behind the first, perfectly positioned to scoop up the very same overseas phone traffic and feed it to the NSA supercomputers that then searched this torrent of data for words of particular interest to the American government. Perhaps even back then, this was no real secret, but rather public knowledge to anyone interested enough to find out. I don’t know for sure.

Anyway, maybe that’s why, when calling my parents from Helsinki, I used to half-seriously envision that someone in the depths of the US intelligence apparatus might be listening as we chatted about the most mundane things imaginable. After all, mine was part of the “foreign” communication that the NSA was tasked with intercepting.

Things have changed since then, and in some ways, they haven’t. Washington is now in an uproar of the first magnitude over the revelations by a former CIA/NSA tech support guy, Edward Snowden, about the extent of the data harvested nowadays by the NSA from domestic phone and Internet traffic. It’s huge, and it’s not just foreign traffic.

Some Americans suddenly feel their liberty has been violated by the fact that information (metadata, mind you, not content) of every phone call they make is being routinely collected by the NSA, and not because any of these people are suspected of any crime. Not yet, anyway.

It’s a fascinating case. For one, the shock and outrage of some people is curious, considering that the broad outline of NSA’s expanded activity has been public for years. It was a key part of a new reality that Americans seem ready to accept after the horror of 9/11. (The Patriot Act, which expanded the NSA’s surveillance powers, sailed through Congress barely six weeks after the Twin Towers fell.)

And it reflects the new reality of an online world. In the Internet age of Google data mining and voluntary exhibitionism on Facebook, it seems almost quaint to find people suddenly so concerned about privacy.

It seems I’m not one of them. I belong to the majority of Americans (56% according to a recent poll) who tend not to be too bothered by this new reality.  Maybe I should be. At least, some people tell us we should all be.

It’s not as if my entire life is an open book, but generally speaking, I have nothing to hide. (And I do recognize how boring that sounds.) Well, I do have some secrets, but there is nothing I wouldn’t want surfacing in an NSA intercept. Nothing that I might talk about on the phone or do online is going to get me indicted, unless it’s a crime to spend too much time surfing the net. I’m not the kind of person the NSA is interested in.

That’s not to say that people who are skittish about the invasion of privacy are guilty of any kind of wrongdoing. It’s just that they have a more finely tuned sense of mistrust and personal liberty than I do. They are, in a sense, more principled. They will argue that the Fourth Amendment constitutional guarantee against unreasonable searches (without probable cause) applies just as much to law-abiding citizens as it does to people who do have something to hide, maybe even more so. They will argue that giving up even a small measure of this privacy for the sake of more security is unacceptable. Until now, however, they seem to be a minority in the US.

Still, there is a certain segment of the population, for which privacy is an overwhelming fixation. I know people who are a bit freaked out that their house is visible on Google Maps Street View, as if that is significantly different from someone being able to see it in person from a public road.

There are people who chafe at the sight of security cameras at every street corner. (Once, I saw spray-painted in large letters on a wall on a London street the text “One Nation Under CCTV” – a terse commentary on the huge concentration of video surveillance in that city). Personally, I don’t mind being watched all that much. Apparently, others do. 

An especially telling example of this at the moment are the people in my home county in Georgia who are fretting that unmanned drones will soon be flying overhead, spying not only on moonshiners, but also on the ordinary citizenry.

This fear seems to stem from certain technology and business interests in Georgia trying to establish a center for drone research in the state. Why my hometown should feel especially threatened by this isn’t exactly clear to me, unless it’s a case of local officials trying to drum up business by offering the county as a potential site for the drone facility. To me, it sounds like a paranoid response.

It’s not as if concerns over privacy are always based on reality. Once, back when everyone in Helsinki still had a landline phone, I was complaining to a co-worker about how phone bills in Finland are not itemized (by number called, duration, etc.). I was surprised by her reaction.

In the days before cell phones, a common experience for American college students was the settling of the monthly phone bill. Going down the list of long-distance calls made with the phone you shared with your room- or house-mates, you would tally up who owed what for which calls. We’d also often discover calls charged to our phone by mistake (or “by mistake”, if you didn't necessarily think the phone company was trustworthy). Itemized bills helped keep both roommates and the phone company honest.

This is what I was complaining to my co-worker, about how you can’t do this in Finland because all charges, both local and long-distance, were presented together in one lump sum. I told her how I’d prefer to see all long-distance calls I’d made itemized in the bill.

Out of defensiveness, I think, over a foreigner like myself daring to criticize how things are done in Finland, my co-worker instantly exclaimed, “Well, I wouldn’t like that at all. I wouldn’t want anyone to know who I had been calling.”

I didn’t say it, but of course this is a ludicrous way to think. If there is anyone who knows precisely which numbers you have called, it would surely be the company routing those calls (and charging you for them). If you object to the phone company having this information, you might want to rethink whether you should be using a phone at all.

Of course, that was an extreme (and to be frank, stupid) example of an exaggerated sense of privacy. Now, with all the news about the NSA leaks, such concern over privacy is the one thing that some people will no doubt be all too willing to share with others.  

1 comment:

  1. Eh. I'm not that excited over the "revelations" that Snowden ratted out. He did it for the Chinese and now he is protected in their billion-strong embrace.

    I grew up under the watchful eye of REAL surveillance. My dad was under the thumb of the FBI for decades for his leftist ideology. He used to tell me of having me in his arms as a very tiny baby when the FBI rolled up in front of his grocery store to question him and not only intimidate him, but to also frighten off his customers.

    When we moved to St. Mary GA where he was trying to start up a plumbing business with a partner, the FBI sent men to his partner's house to put the squeeze on him and inform him what a rabble-rousing monster my dad was. It dad lost his business partner and packed us up and we moved back up the road to home turf.

    People scooping up random words to jam into a computer to make sense of the whole mess? That's nothing. Spend a couple of decades with J. Edgar Hoover's goons. That'll give you a sense of what real surveillance can be.