David Brooks doesn't know technology, which is why we shouldn't listen to him when it comes to his opinion on surveillance

From a recent PBS transcript, David Brooks has been very publicly engaging in ad hominem attacks on Snowden. That's just fine — you can tell his case is weak because he's resorting to the weakest of all arguments: the ad hominem attack. But the justification for mass data sweeps makes no sense. He says:

He betrayed the cause of liberty, because, if you don't have mass data sweeps, well, then these agencies are going to want to go back to the old-fashioned eavesdropping, which is a lot more intrusive.

This statement is plainly false. "Old fashioned" eavesdropping is actually far less intrusive than what we're talking about today. Eavesdropping on a telephone conversation on an analog telephone (e.g. back in the day when J Edgar Hoover wiretapped Martin Luther King Jr.) required a court order, and actual people to record and listen in on specific conversations in realtime. 

You could only eavesdrop on a specific person at one time. Now there's infinite lookback on anything you've written, who you've talked to, and any email, text message, or IM for your entire life. That was one of the most important topics of Laura Poitras's NY Times mini-documentary "The Program", with NSA whistleblower William Binney. A 32-year old NSA insider turned whistleblower, William Binney describes the actual goal of NSA surveillance:

Think of a domain as an activity. A specific type of activity. Phone calls. Banking is another. If you think of graphing each domain, and then each graph turn it in the third dimension... pulling together all the attributes that any individual has in every domain, so that now I can pull your entire life together from all those domains and map it out and show your entire life over time.

This is the shift. Now we live in an age of infinite storage! We are only now capable of keeping every aspect of our lives accessible at any time, within milliseconds. We find great utility in it, and we entrust our greatest tech companies in the world with our data: Facebook, Twitter, and Google. 

We use these services believing that they are personal, for ourselves. Yet this is the same capability that now, via PRISM, the government can potentially have, all through secret courts and little oversight. All the things you do, and everybody you talk to, and down to the very thoughts you care to put down in both private and public communications. 

Temporally, that means this new surveillance (what David Brooks dismisses as merely mass data sweeps) is actually past and present. Whereas the "old-fashioned" form of surveillance could only be one the present. It's a capability not even touched upon by Orwell when he wrote 1984. It's not enough to be clean, sober, free and clear right now. You've got to be spotless and perfect over the course of your entire life. 

To dismiss mass data sweeps as less intrusive than old fashioned wiretaps is either ignorance, or a deliberate attempt to mislead the public. David Brooks isn't an engineer, and doesn't seem to understand the technical differences between the old regime and the new, so I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. 
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6 responses
I understand your concerns. I am not in favor of intrusive government either. Get rid of those damned government schools, I say. And of course Obamacare is nothing if not intrusive. But I think your post is misleading as to the law. As I understand it, the courts have held since the 70's that you have no expectation of privacy about the mere fact that you made a call, whom you called, etc. You pick up the phone and call your mother. Nothing private there because Verizon MUST know you did that and when. Now, what you actually say to your mother IS private and you STILL NEED A WARRANT to get into that. In "The Looming Tower," Lawrence Wright describes telephone conversations monitored by NSA back in 1999. They could pretty much listen in on Al-Queda. (Of course, the CIA refused to share the information with the FBI for various reasons so no one watched the KNOWN terrorist who entered the country and soon 3000 of us were fried.) So, there is nothing new, technically, in Snowden's revelations--beyond the scope . And he is no hero. You cannot have a democracy if everyone is king and makes his own laws. So Brooks may be right. The mere fact of storing which numbers called which numbers and when is no violation of the Constitution. And to go in, you still need a warrant (granted, they always give the warrant cause no judge wants to micromanage a war--I hope.)
Jim, you're using outdated talking points. It's clear now that the surveillance programs do actually store voice content. There is no warrant, merely "51% certainty" on the part of individuals within the system. I worry that's not enough oversight. http://www.globalresearch.ca/nsa-spying-and-int...
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