I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What Orwell Got Wrong

This morning, I read the second most depressing thing I've yet read about the NSA data collection "scandal." I put scandal in quotes because, as it turns out, a substantial majority of Americans don't think it's scandalous that the US monitors the metadata of their phone calls. According to a Pew pol this morning, 56% of people don't have a believe that the monitoring is an acceptable tool for preventing terrorism. This is actually a higher percentage who feel this way than under the Bush administration, since in the previous administration, 37% of Democrats were in favor of this sort of surveillance, but now that Obama is the one collecting the data, 64% of Democrats are cool with it. (Republican opinion is just as partisan, with a 24% swing between administrations who think these actions are unacceptable.)

I'm depressed by these numbers, but not surprised. What Orwell got wrong in 1984 was the idea that people would feel stressed out or depressed by constant surveillance. But, in the era of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and blogs, it turns out that many people crave having their thoughts known every waking moment. There's a Candorville comic strip where the protagonist wakes up and finds an NSA agent sitting at the edge of his bed. The NSA agent starts to give the protag advice on his love life. The protag is outraged. "How does the government know so much about me?" he demands. The NSA agent says, "For starters, we read your blog." To which the protag gives a sheepish smile and says, "Oh, thank you."

The age of privacy is dead. Millions of people willingly use GMail despite the fact that Google makes no secret that it searches every email for keywords it can use to better target advertising. And we understand, on a technological level, that the cell phones we rely on everyday have to be tracked by a big corporation merely to relay calls to you. The sort of metadata the government collects is obviously in the possession of the phone companies, since they need to know who we're calling and how long in order to bill us. It's a trade off I think most of us accept because we don't think that a corporation like Verizon is likely to use this data against us in a harmful way. By studying who you call, when you call, and how long you call, Verizon could probably discover things you don't want widely known, but you trust that there's no money in them revealing these things, so why worry?

But, here's the part of this NSA news I find most depressing: There is money in this data. I don't think Verizon is being paid for turning over this information, but a second private firm, Booz Allen Hamilton, is being paid to do the data collection for the government. The spying has been outsourced. Your call data isn't being reviewed by men in black suits with stern faces sitting in a CIA office in DC. It's being looked at by 20-something tech geeks who may not be as responsible with the data as you would like. Hell, the fact that we even know about the extent of the surveillance is proof that not all these tech geeks are screened for their potential to misuse the data, since obviously Edward Snowden was able to walk away from the job with a substantial amount of top secret information.

In some ways, I'd be less bothered if it was the government collecting the data. I don't agree that they should be collecting the data, but at least I would believe that they would only use this data for a reasonably limited purpose of criminal investigation. But if a private corporation is collecting the data, they have to understand they're sitting on a gold mine of knowledge about people's behavior that advertisers would pay billions to have. I'm sure there are laws in place to prevent this knowledge from being sold... just as I'm sure there are lobbyists in place working to weaken or remove any such safeguards. It's bad enough I'm being spied on. Thinking that people are getting rich by spying on me via my own tax dollars just twists the knife a tiny bit more.

Luckily, our government has such a spotless record of standing up to large corporations, we've nothing to worry about, right?


By the way, not that I was especially prescient in this, but one of the plot points in my novel Nobody Gets the Girl is how a man who wants to do only good for the world, Dr. Knowbokov, uses his ability to spy on people's most private thoughts in a rather unsavory manner. And all to fight terrorism! I wrote the book 13 years ago. At the time I wrote it, I worried that the theme might feel dated in a few years. Hah! Oh well. If you haven't read Nobody yet, now's a good time. It's on sale for a mere 99 cents on Kindle through June 19.


Meagen Voss said...

Many people are comfortable with companies having our data, but those companies don't have the power to arrest us or confiscate our property. Plus, if they harm us, we have legal recourse. The government collecting a database of information of this size and magnitude is disturbing mostly because it's power waiting to be abused. Private companies are already collecting my data, and I'm fine with that, but I am not fine with the governement 1) replicating what private companies are already doing using my tax dollars and 2) doing so without the consent I have already granted to Google, Skype, etc. I understand they need to be able to move fast in the event of an emergency, but in this day and age, it can't be all that hard for them to access, for example, Google's data and find what they need to find after obtaining a warrant.

James Maxey said...

Meagan, I think the sad truth is that we did consent to this data-monitoring. As has been pointed out repeatedly in the reporting, this is all legal, authorized by congress and approved by the courts. We voted for the representatives who passed the law, and now the polls would seem to indicate we'll vote for politicians who continue to authorize these laws.

One detail I read yesterday I didn't know before was that Verizon used to destroy the metadata it collected on phone calls after a few months. It was too expensive to retain records of every call ever made in their databases. So, laws were passed after 9-11 that require them to turn over the data and now the government keeps the comprehensive database of all calls, since you never know when you might need to look at ten year old phone records to find the first inklings of a sinister plot.