Grappling with Edward Snowden, Part 2: We Are Not What We Once Were

"The potential for abuse is horrifying," the commission member told reporters. "With records compiled on all people almost from the day they're born, it could be like Big Brother."

He was worried, damn worried, about what corporations and the federal government might do with all this information. "Anybody," he said of what can be done with the data out there, "can find out where a person travels, his medical history, what books he reads, who he associates with, what courses he takes in school, his sexual preferences." Ominously, he added, "And with enough of that data, you can pretty much determine the very nature and substance of a person." He meant this as a bad thing, as something, indeed, "horrifying."

Those quotes are from David Linowes, an economist and professor who had a long involvement in issues of privacy and the government. Linowes was talking back in 1977 about what the Privacy Protection Study Committee he chaired had come to understand: the more Americans had their data computerized, the more the risk to their privacy. The committee had been set up by the Privacy Act of 1974, passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal and, well, Nixon in general, and they had been working on a report and recommendations for two years.

What struck the Rude Pundit when he stumbled across this article was, first, the alarmist headline:

Reading the story, though, he was taken back to those pre-Facebook/MySpace/whatever days, when one actually, honestly gave a shit about one's privacy, back when you didn't want everyone you ever met and their friends and their friends' friends' to know every detail about your life. He thought about how, yes, this was real, how the very notion that the government and megacorporations would own your data was some kind of deeply offensive insult to what made us Americans. But maybe you needed a Soviet Union to understand what that actually means.

On this week's one-year anniversary of Edward Snowden's revelation of the extent of the information gathering (and let's stop calling it "intelligence" - it's information, it's data) by the NSA, perhaps it would be good to remember that we got here because of the concerted effort of the government, the culture, and corporate America, where Google can tailor your online experience to only show you what its algorithms think you want to see, where you freely reveal intimate details about your whereabouts and habits, where a spy agency can collect information on every phone call and email you make.

We've gotten to the point where perfectly liberal people can say they have no problem with the gathering of metadata. Back in 1977, Linowes' committee made recommendations, like requiring companies to destroy data after a certain period of time so that it could not be combed through.  The suggestions weren't as sweeping as some wanted and virtually none were enacted. They targeted mostly the banking and insurance industries, which, if you think about it, was pretty prescient.

It's fascinating to think now that there was a time, not very long ago, when we thought our lives should be our own. It's sadly unironic that we didn't do anything to protect ourselves.

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