Friday, May 12, 2006

NSA Collection of Telephone Data in the Post-Gutenberg-Dependent World

A few years ago, I was talking with a woman in her seventies who asked, "Mark, did you know that you can look up my house and its appraised value on the web?"

"Really?" I asked, unaware that her local county auditor offered this service. "That is so cool! It should make buying a house easier and linking buyers and sellers. It'll also keep the asking prices more in line with the values in their neighborhoods. And, it'll help people decide which houses they really want to see when they're in the market."

This woman, who's a septuagenarian, looked at me incredulously. I hadn't realized that when she first told me about the auditor's site, she meant it as an implicit statement of criticism.

"I just don't like people knowing my business," she said.

My guess is that our varied reactions are partly generational. Sixty- and seventy-somethings and younger folks still operating in a Gutenberg-dependent mindset are likely to look askance at the Information Age and the widespread diffusion of information once considered "private."

Others though, will see this new era as one that happily makes our lives and the sharing of useful data easier. For those of a younger age and for those more tuned into data bases, privacy, particularly in the face of world terrorism, is not as big a deal as it might have been to those whose parents hid money in coffee cans hidden under beds because they didn't trust banks.

This may be one reason that, at least initially, most Americans seem not to share the outrage expressed by some in Congress at the National Security Agency's tracking of domestic telephone calls since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

A Washington Post-ABC News Poll shows that 63% of the American people support the activity and that 66% report they would be untroubled by having their own calls monitored. For my elderly friend, such a reaction will be unfathomable. These results are particularly remarkable in light of two polls earlier this week showing near-record lows in support of the President.

But my guess is that without consideration of national security or feelings about the President's policies, the computer age has introduced a new ethos surrounding the whole notion of privacy, of what needs to be private, and of what one may feel comfortable about law enforcement--or the whole blooming world--knowing about our lives. One may raise legitimate questions about whether this shift in thinking is appropriate or not. But we don't seem to be as private as we used to be.

When one then adds concerns about the safety and security of America in the face of terrorism, I think you have the two main reasons that, at least for now, a landslide-size majority of Americans support what some decry as a violation of people's rights.


Deborah White said...

I'm not elderly (although a solidly middle-aged baby boomer), and the reaction is unfathomable to me. I literally do not "get" it.

But I have always been naturally sensitive to privacy conderns.

Mark Daniels said...

I hope that people understand that I wasn't expressing an opinion here, just trying to explain. I had no intention of touching a political discussion of this with a ten-foot area code.