Spying on Americans isn’t new. What’s new is that somebody blew the whistle.
The big news in the Federal government for the past month has been the latest leak, i.e. Edward Snowden revealing the NSA’s PRISM and all that entails. There have been a host of denials, both from the NSA and from service providers, and a lot of people are very upset about the possibility of “their data” being spied on by the government.
I’m a little less naive about the situation. For one thing, I’m quite aware that once I’ve posted something somewhere, or used a “cloud” service, that data is no longer “mine” in the way that (say) my jewelry is mine. Perhaps it should be, but it isn’t, and to think that an entity as powerful as the NSA isn’t accessing “your” data in whatever way it wants shows a great deal of credulity. There has never not been a time when the US government hasn’t been able to spy on civilians, nor any reason to think they have not been doing so. Up until recently, what has mitigated the situation is that there was simply too much data to be analyzed for such spying to be useful without a definitive target. Now there’s reason to think that’s no longer the case, and that’s all that’s really changed recently. Big data and the power to crunch through it has its disadvantages.
The really amazing thing about the leak is that it happened, that somebody had not only the ability to find out hard data about the NSA’s activities but the ability to get away (so far) with it. The government has used the former fact to downplay the importance of the leak and/or try to outright deny that Snowden accomplished anything significant. That strategy having failed, they’ve tried to justify the surveillance. That strategy isn’t really working either, mostly because the Obama administration has more than once stated that it is justified in continuing Bush-era surveillance and defense programs instituted soon after 9/11, and the public is fed up with it. PRISM is seen as one more example of the current administration’s overstepping itself, whether or not that is true.
Snowden has stated that he was inspired by other whistleblowers, such as Bradley Manning, a soldier who has been denied due process for his alleged crimes. Manning, however, simply took advantage of a glaring lapse in security, whereas Snowden’s actions took more expertise (a lot more, I hope, frankly). It’s actually hard to say what motivated either man. The idea that the NSA might actually cease to conduct surveillance on American citizens is laughable. The only thing that’s fairly obvious is that Snowden was very aware of what he was doing, and what might be the result - for him - of his actions (something that was never clear about Manning’s decision to leak data).
Not surprisingly, Snowden’s actions - so soon after Manning’s, and with Julian Assange’s future still in doubt - are being seen by many as heroic, even when Manning’s and Assange’s were not. It’s almost funny that the public is more horrified at being spied on than it was at “Collateral Murder”. Funny for those of us who weren’t surprised by it, that is.