An Ode to Privacy
WASHINGTON — Several times a month, a woman calls my office in the middle of the night and leaves long voice mail messages about how she’s the target of a vast, sinister conspiracy. I won’t give her name — obviously, she suffers from mental illness. The conspiracy she perceives involves the U.S. military, the CIA, interference with her brain waves and constant monitoring by the evil people who, for whatever reason, have decided that her thoughts somehow threaten their nefarious plans. Sometimes she disguises her voice and pretends to be a lieutenant in the heroic resistance against mind control.
She always seems upbeat and energized, and I think I understand why: This must be a great time to be a paranoid.
People with a tendency to imagine that they are constantly being watched now have actual evidence to support their delusions. This weekend, when Congress legalized the Bush administration’s practice of eavesdropping on citizens’ international phone calls and e-mails without first seeking court warrants, my occasional caller must have said to her imaginary lieutenant, “See, I told you so.”
My purpose here is not to endorse paranoia, and I’m not even going to blast the White House for further eroding our traditional guarantees of privacy. Well, maybe I’ll blast the White House and Congress just a little: I’m as anxious to catch terrorists before they strike as the next guy, but what’s wrong with having at least a fig leaf of judicial oversight? Why is it so onerous to have the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court continue to rubber-stamp eavesdropping requests, even retroactively?
Still, I’m having trouble getting as worked up over the new anything-goes snooping law as I should, because fighting for privacy as we once knew it is a lost cause. Our lives are public now.
What’s stunning about the National Security Agency’s surveillance of phone calls and e-mails is not just that it can now be done without a warrant, but that it can be done at all. If I were to pick up the phone and dial a terrorist suspect in, say, London, the call would have to be routed through some major telecommunications node. The NSA could somehow plug into that node and find my call amid all the countless others that happened to be passing through.
In the process, the NSA would be able to capture an enormous amount of data about all sorts of phone calls. Most of that data might never be examined, but it would still be there if anyone cared to browse.
Of course, we’ve known for a long time that phone records, as opposed to the actual conversations themselves, have the ability to live forever — and to tell the world more than we would like it to know. Just ask Sen. David Vitter, R-La., whose phone number showed up in the records of “D.C. Madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey.
The interesting thing is that Palfrey herself had no idea that Vitter had been one of the clients of her escort service. All she had was a set of her own phone records, listing only the phone numbers of callers. She released them on the Internet, and legions of the curious dug in to match numbers with names. Vitter was there all along, buried in the data.
Phone calls are just a start. Everyone should know by now that e-mails are all but eternal. Even those messages that Karl Rove and the rest of the White House political staff sent and received through a parallel Republican National Committee e-mail system, and that now can’t be found, must be out there somewhere in cyberspace. But I digress.
The text messages we send back and forth on our cell phones are similarly long-lived. And if your mobile phone communicates with the global oositioning system, it sends information about precisely where you are. What was that again about having to work late at the office?
Who needs GPS anyway? Think of all the security cameras that record your movements every day. Use an automated teller machine, fill the gas tank, drop into a convenience store, visit the mall or walk into the lobby of an office building, and chances are that you’ve been caught on videotape.
What if someone had predicted 50 years ago that someday all this once-private information would be captured and stored? Psychiatrists would have issued a quick and definitive diagnosis: paranoia.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group