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So the National Security Agency is collecting all our phone records -- and has been for years. This is, of course, yet another instance of a casual, probably illegal, violation of our expectation of personal privacy by our current rulers. The Bushies are authoritarian megalomaniacs bent on undermining any constraints of law. Our Constitutional framework may not survive the present lot.
But that is not what I want to look at. What I want to focus on is that the technical means now exist to know just about everything about all of us. If we use any of the everyday conveniences of modern life, we leave trails -- on the phones, on the internet, from the transponders that pay bridge tolls, with our credit card and debit card purchases, even at the supermarket with our "club" cards. Our lives are totally open books; most of this data is for sale to corporations that want to sell us things. And with enough computing power, certainly available to governments and probably to the largest corporations, there is very little about our lived lives that can't be known based on the electronic trails we create.
As I've explored before,what's new is simply the amount of personal information that can reasonably be collected and digested. Our past expectations of privacy, of anonymity, depended on the inability of anyone to know so much about us. Now we give away vast amounts of data to interested parties everyday.
Most of us know this, intuitively. William Gibson, the dystopian author best known for the novel Neuromancer, had some interesting observations on some reactions to news of the NSA spying:
Exactly. The problem of privacy, of any meaningful freedom for individuals, in an environment of technical transparency is entirely a problem of political creativity. As attorney Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation explained to the LA Times:
Our Bill of Rights and our system of laws assumed that Big Brother's reach would have practical limits. That is no longer true.
Today we are challenged to develop new restraints on governments to meet the new conditions. The enormity of the task is only slightly reduced by appreciating that overthrowing of the divine right of kings probably seemed only marginally less daunting in the mid-1700s. We might pull it off; the species has before, at some times and in some places. The cost of constraining monarchs has never been small; the project is not likely to be quick or easy this time either.