23 December 2013

Why the Evolution of Technology Necessitates NSA Spying on Individuals

I don't mind the NSA having special powers to collect data, powers that could be abused. The police and army also have special powers that could be abused, but the danger of them not having such powers is greater than the danger of having them.

I simply think that too much is at stake for us not to be able to monitor communications at a level that (for the most part) lets people communicate privately yet (for the most part) alerts authorities to potential threats. Soon, individuals will be able to do what only institutions could previously do. This is the pattern of technology that, sadly, will likely hold for not just computers and sewing machines but even powerful bombs.

At one point in history, we could sew only manually. Later, factory owners with lots of capital could afford the machinery that automated this work. Even later, any woman with credit good enough to make monthly payments of $1 could buy a sewing machine to have in her own home. First the task is automated and then it is privatized.

At one point in history, we could compute only manually. Later, only countries or large corporations had money enough to afford the computers that could automate computation. Even later, anyone with a credit card could buy their own personal computer. First the task is automated and then it is privatized.

Which brings us to killing. At one point in history we could only kill people manually. Later, armies developed bombs that could kill thousands at once. It is lovely to imagine that bombs with such power won't ever become affordable for individuals, but that would make them the exception in the evolution of technology. There is simply too much at stake to assume that everyone with the freedom to communicate with anyone about anything will value peace more than mayhem.

If we were only talking about the possibility of guns or even small bombs, one might reasonably argue that the cost of risking privacy is not worth the value of lives protected. But when we're talking about the ability to create widespread destruction - something that would make 9-11 look like a preview - the cost-benefit calculation is far more simple.

I think there should be civilian oversight for the NSA. I think that their processes should be known. I think that they should be subject to outside audits periodically. It's right to be a little paranoid about so much spying capability. But it's wrong to assume that if we simply stop the spying that we citizens will remain safe as technology for destruction follows the same arc as every other technology. As technology for destruction more easily gets into the hands of individuals, the spying on foreign nations for national security has to be supplemented with spying on individuals. Looking for patterns in meta-data seems like the best means available for balancing that need with our need for privacy.

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