So there’s some stuff going down in Washington it seems. The government is either spying on us, or has the capability to spy on us, or has a secret court to spy on us, or something else. The buzzwords and names in this story are great. We have Prism, Clapper, Snowden… I don’t know if these are the names of people or secret operations. But who cares.
Central to all this coverage is the revelation of a whistleblower that says the government has more or less abused its power to secretly have the ability to big brother us all the way back to 1984. The shock and anger are two-fold: first, we aren’t sure if the government should have such wide-reaching capability; and second, we certainly didn’t know about it.
Interestingly, our government for the most part is unified in that there’s nothing illegal going on and the only secrets being kept were the ones needed to protect the operations. This make sense because if terrorists knew how they were being monitored, they would find new ways to communicate. I’m not yet of the opinion there’s much going on here at all. So far all I’ve noticed is a UK-based media agency milking their first US scoop for all the eyes and clicks we can give them. All this news warrants an investigation since it’s now public, but I don’t feel surprised, threatened, or violated (yet).
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s focus on the central issue here: the balance between privacy and protection. An economist can look at this debate quite simply. On one side you can get virtually 100% protection from terrorists if you’re willing to give up all your privacy. On the other side you can lose most of your protection in exchange for some privacy. The chart at the top is anything but scientific, but it visualizes the spectrum up for debate. With the appropriate data, we could determine exactly how much privacy we have to give up to save one additional life, thereby creating a value for the balance.
People that don’t want to give up their privacy feel this way for a couple of reasons. For the first, it’s none of our damn business. But the second is they don’t trust the government to use it responsibly. These are both valid concerns. On the other side you have people that are willing to sacrifice a bit of privacy because they have nothing to hide. Again, valid.
So where do you sit on this spectrum? The answer doesn’t really matter for our purposes. But you need to know where you stand before you take a side on this NSA stuff. The only other thing left for us is to determine how much of these claims are true. Only after you know where you stand and how much of this is true can we actually have a discussion about how much snooping power our government should have.
Until then, we’re just angry because we’re being told we’re supposed to be.