Random Thoughts on the NSA and Metadata

I actually wrote this over a month ago as the NSA scandal started to break, posting it at Big Tent Revue, my political blog.  An big brotherarticle by Baptist blogger Ed Setzer had me thinking about this again, so I decided to post it here with some additions.

There’s a part of me that’s hesitant to say anything about the NSA scandal. It involves a lot of things that I’m not clear about, such as how you comb through the data without snooping on folks. I still think this story is forming and we don’t know the whole scope of things. That said, I do have some musings which are sure to bug people on all sides. So, here goes.

  • Whenever I hear libertarians complain about this, I have to wonder what they think is the proper response when terrorism happens. More often than not, the answer is that such things like 9/11 won’t happen again or the chances of terrorism happening to us are slim. I would agree that a 9/11-style attack was probably a one-shot deal. But in the years following 9/11 we have had other smaller scale threats such as the Christmas Day attempt to blow up an airliner over the skies of Detroit, or the guy that wanted to set off a car bomb in Times Square and of course, the Boston Marathon bombings. So, how does government best respond to these threats? How do we try to protect the American people and yet uphold the ideals we cherish? How do we keep the balance? It bugs me that libertarians don’t really have an answer for this, which leads me to think that their answer is basically to shrug it off. I hope I’m wrong, but I do wonder.
  • Related to the libertarian argument is a Christian response given by mostly liberal Christians which basically goes like this: only God can give us true security, everything else is just an idol. Daniel Schulz writes “Besides, Christians, Jews and Muslims alike affirm that only God can provide ultimate security—not invulnerability to threat but God’s transformative support and presence amid our vulnerability.”  That’s an easy thing to say sitting in a comfortable coffeeshop or in a church study.  Would you say that to a grieving parent or friend who loses someone to a terrorist attack, let alone a robbery or assault?  Again, I think we have gone overboard on security in this nation.  But downplaying those concerns and whistling past the graveyard is not a real alternative.
  • Are we really surprised the government would start sorting through our data? In an age where Google and Apple collect tons of our data, it would only be a matter of time before the government got into the act. The internet and mobile technology is a wonderful thing, but it has also left us more vulnerable to be followed.
  • We have to start thinking about what privacy means in the Internet age. I tend to think we have an expectation of privacy that made sense 40 years ago, but not now. In an age where we freely share our history on Facebook and where Google can provide us with ads based on our searches, we have to think about what privacy means now and we also have to think about the trade offs of taking part in this new age.
  • Baptist preacher Ed Setzer wonders why more Christians aren’t upset about government spying.  I don’t have a clear reason, but I wonder if it’s how folk perceive the issue.  Many people have now seen acts of terror take place.  We’ve seen the pictures of planes ramming into buildings and bombs going off during a major sporting event.  A terrorist attack is easy to deal with whereas talking about rights and the role of government seems more hypothetical.  If people start to be harrassed because of surveillance, then the tide might turn.  But as long as the civil liberties side looks like a hypothetical exercise then, we will chuck limited government for the false promise of safety.
  • Is it time for some kind of ethic for Christians in this arena?  What would a security equivalent of “just war” theory look like?  Would there be a “pacifist” option?  In this age where so much of our lives take place online, it’s high time we start looking into that.
  • These next few points are Via Peggy Noonan. Politicians tend to look at terrorism through the lens of self-interest. No politico of either party wants to be the one that gets blamed for some major attack because they didn’t do anything. As much as the public might say they are upset at government snooping, I tend to think the public will also punish any politician that appeared to not do respond to a threat. This means, any politician is going to do something that could be incredibly stupid in order to save their hides.
  • A growing surveillence state might thwart some attacks, but it can also not notice other potential threats. It is not perfect. The most obvious example are the Tsarnaevs. All of the apparatus of the security state for some reason didn’t pick up what was going on with these two brothers. The state might be powerful, but it isn’t God.
  • The collection of data could very well be used for bad purposes. The president and Congress can swear on a stack of Bibles that the data is secure, but the people collecting the data are human. The information could be used to threaten innocent people. The temptation for overreach and abuse is high.

I know this isn’t a self-righteous blog post expressing anger either way. But then our post 9/11 world leaves me with more questions than they do answers.

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