June 24 2013 05:48 PM

My current perch gives me a unique view of public interest in government surveillance

nolifeforweb
Obama cares this much about privacy.

I've been hellishly busy in the weeks since I filed my last column. 

On June 6, The Guardian began reporting on the most significant unauthorized government document dump since Bradley Manning smuggled out hundreds of thousands of State Department records while pretending to rock out to Lady Gaga. This time, Edward Snowden, a geeky whistleblower who worked for an NSA contractor, presented evidence of the agency's massive surveillance programs that history will likely remember as the defining scandal of President Barack Obama's second term. 

I left my full time gig at CityBeat back in February to work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil-liberties organization that is now at the center of the public debate over surveillance and privacy. The immediate emotional reaction here could be boiled down to three words: Told. You. So. 

For years, EFF has been sounding the alarm (and litigating) amid overbroad spying powers exercised by the federal government. Consequently, virtually every media organization around the globe has turned to us for comment and guidance. I'm not exaggerating when I say that we received more than 20 press calls an hour in the first days of the scandal, especially after The Guardian published an image of Snowden with an EFF sticker on his laptop. It's reached the point that every time journalist Glenn Greenwald tweets that he has a new revelation in the pipeline, I reach for the Advil.

Most of the calls have been intelligent, but some have just been ridiculous. (My favorite came via email from a certain foreign state-run news agency asking for Snowden's contact details. First of all—we don't have them. EFF hasn't been in touch with him. Even if we were, why would we hand it over, via unencrypted email, to a media organization controlled by a nation with a poor human-rights track record and a contentious relationship with the U.S.?)

The most frustrating inquiries have asked for reaction to the notion that the public just doesn't care. I don't know where this meme comes from: Most of the polls indicate that a large segment of America isn't comfortable with the NSA's tactics, and that doesn't even account for the international outrage. But even the polls that do show a slim majority supporting the programs, I have to point out that whatever confidence there is in the Obama administration isn't likely to rise as more information is revealed.

There have been protests outside the NSA data-processing facility in Utah and outside Sen. Dianne Feinstein's mansion in San Francisco. The deluge of press calls—from publications on the left and the right, from the Christian press to the trade journals—are proof of widespread interest. Every American who asks, "Why should I care?" is implicitly expressing that he or she does, in fact, care.

Here's why I'm personally rejecting cynicism: My work has never been so viral. In the week after the scandal broke, privacy advocates began passing around a CBS interview with Vice President Joe Biden from 2006 (when he was a senator). In the clip, Biden rails against the Bush administration's mass collection of phone metadata (whom you called and when and for how long). I intercut that video with Obama's public defense of the program to create a debate in which Biden pwns Obama on every claim. I uploaded it to YouTube and waited. For hours, the view-count was stuck at "301+," the number where it stops until YouTube can verify the views are genuine. As of this writing, the video has logged 210,000 views. That's no Miss America FAIL video, but it was enough that Biden himself was questioned about it during a campaign event in Silicon Valley.

People do care. But for the sake of addressing you who are still struggling to get angry about metadata ("You don't need to worry if you're not doing anything wrong"), here are some questions to ask yourself: 

· Let's imagine the government secretly made a deal with doorbell manufacturers to install surveillance devices that captured everyone who ever came to your house and every time you left your house and then recorded you every time you visited someone else's house. Even if you weren't doing anything wrong, even if it wasn't recording your actual conversations, would you be OK with that? That's essentially what we're talking about here, but with communication. 

· Are you really OK with the director of national intelligence lying—in his words, giving "the least untruthful" answer, to Congress? 

· Are you really OK with the president gesturing that collecting data on millions of Verizon subscribers amounts to a privacy encroachment no bigger than a few centimeters between his thumb and forefinger? 

A lot of the rhetoric has suggested that the government is "vacuuming" up data. Perhaps it might be more impactful if we started acknowledging what the government is actually doing: gathering evidence on millions of Americans

Email davem@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter @Maassive.

Calendar

See all events on Tuesday, Sep 27