Recently, it has come to light that the National Security Agency and the FBI have been spying on U.S. citizens, logging our phone calls, storing all of our emails in huge databases for possible future use, and working with Silicon Valley companies to track our online behavior.
While this has bothered some of us, others have responded with a mere shrug of the shoulders.
“So what if the government is spying on us? I have nothing to hide anyway so why does it matter? Anyway, if they want to listen to my boring phone calls with my mom, more power to them.”
If we are being honest with ourselves, there’s probably a part in all of us that agrees with this view. Perhaps it’s because we live in an online world dominated by social media. We just assume that we have very little privacy anymore and there’s nothing we can do about it, so why worry about it?
But there are legitimate reasons to be concerned. And you should be aware of them before assuming that you don’t have anything to hide.
Are You Sure You Are Not Breaking the Law?
We think we have nothing to hide because we assume that we are not breaking the law. But do you really know that for sure? There are 4,500 federal criminal statutes and 300,000 other regulations. Have you looked through all of them? Are you sure you haven’t broken any of them? Odds are you probably have and just aren’t aware of it.
Did you know it was against federal law to be in possession of a lobster under a certain size? Or that it’s illegal to remove an arrowhead from federal land?
For example, a few years ago a man was arrested in Michigan for illegally using a café’s wifi hotspot, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. He wasn’t a customer, and wasn’t aware that it was illegal to access this particular public wifi hotspot if you weren’t a customer. A police officer just happened to observe the man, but what if the government tracked which wifi networks you connect to and decided to use this against you?
Even the government doesn’t know how many federal laws exist. The Justice Department spent two years trying to do just that in the 1980s, but could only come up with an estimate. If the federal government doesn’t even know how many laws are on the books, what hope do we have of knowing if we are in compliance with all of them?
But what if you’re not even breaking the law, just doing something a little unseemly? General Petraeus was fired from his job as Director of the FBI because the NSA found out he was having an affair. How did the NSA find this out? By looking at his private emails that the government had stored in those huge databases.
If a highly decorated general is not safe from this kind of unwarranted surveillance, what hope do we have? Do we really want the government to know everything about our private lives?
The Unvarnished Truth
The truth is that we live in a time of unprecedented surveillance. After 9/11, our country passed the Patriot Act and other laws that gave the government virtual free reign to collect whatever information it wanted, and the government has taken full advantage of these laws, working to collect and store massive amounts of personal user data. The government has been spending billions of dollars a year working with Silicon Valley companies to figure out how to collect and store all of this data.
Most of these actions have operated in secret and very few people knew the full extent of them, even members of Congress. But now the truth is beginning to come out. The silver lining of this whole debacle is that now our country gets to have a public discussion regarding privacy versus protection. How important is our inherent right to privacy?
Since we are beginning to see how intricate this surveillance is and how much the government knows about us, perhaps it’s time to abandon our view that we don’t have anything to hide, and tell the government to mind its own business.