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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Surveillance State

A week back, Thomas Friedman, the distinguished author and columnist for the New York Times, wrote a column approving of the NSA's surveillance and monitoring of metadata of email and phone calls for pretty much everyone.

His argument:  I like civil liberties, civil liberties will take it on the chin even more than they are now if we have another 9-11 style attack.  So the government should do all that is can to prevent another such attack, and if that's what the surveillance is doing, I'm in favor of it.  Also, that this has been going on for two American presidencies now.

What an idiot!

OK, I mean, Thomas Friedman isn't an idiot, and there's a certain soothing logic to his column which reflects an opinion that's apparently shared by a lot of my fellow Americans.

But it's wrong, it's misguided, and quite obviously so.

It took me several days of mulling over Thomas Friedman's soothing article to zone in on the basic fallacy, but once you do, it's really quite simple.

And that fallacy is this:  There is no guarantee that any of the NSA programs will stop another 9-11 type attack.  The fact that the Boston Marathon bombings could take place is kind of proof positive that we cannot be 100% protected from terrorist activity.  Since neither Thomas Friedman nor President Obama nor the head of the CIA or NSA or Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) or Speaker John Bonier (R-OH) or any of the other many people defending this surveillance cannot guarantee that their efforts will not protect us 100% from another 9-11, I would respectfully ask that my 4th Amendment rights be protected and that the government not go vacuuming up information on every single phone call I make. And that the government not go vacuuming up information on pretty much every e-mail I send.

Of course, the head of the NSA has come out and said how these wonderful surveillance efforts have lead to the stopping of 50 plots against us.  Of course, he won't give much detailed information about any of these because it's a secret.  I have no secrets, he gets to keep all of his?  That's not the way to have a debate or discussion.

If we could look at the details, we would probably discover that many of these plots could have been discovered in ways other than vacuuming up metadata on every phone call and e-mail.  We might discover that there would have been plenty of time to get warrants for the specific individuals vs. invading the privacy of all of us.  But we won't get a lot of these details.

Several editorial cartoonists have been quite succinct in pointing out the ludicrousness of many of the same Senators who filibustered reasonable background check legislation for gun sales now turning around to say it's perfectly fine for the government to get the metadata for every single phone call I make.  I guess it could be argued that I am inconsistent for wanting my metadata to be protected while thinking background checks for guns are a good idea, but isn't there a common sense difference between placing a phone call and buying a weapon used to kill people?

I don't buy the idea that my e-mails aren't being looked at because that program is limited to getting data for people overseas.  I happen to email people overseas almost all the time, and I have this hunch that the computer that vacuums up the emails of those people will vacuum mine up along with it.  Have you ever sent an e-mail where the chain includes ten other e-mails?  Even, on occasion, the computer might fold in some e-mail from a completely different conversation because you started a new conversation in a reply or had the same subject line.

My blog is supposed to be about publishing, so I want to make this conversation a little bit relevant.

Government power:  A lot of us think the Department of Justice had a pretty weak case against Apple and the major publishers on e-book price fixing.  The publishers changed to a model that reduced the power of Amazon, which had 90% of the e-book business and was selling e-books as loss leaders.  Amazon provided a lot of the information and a lot of the impetus behind the lawsuit.  Yet the publishers all ended up settling.  Why?  Well, it's pretty simple.  The government has a lot of power and a lot of tools and a lot of resources, and when it decides to use those against you, it's awfully hard to resist. Why do you want to give the government such benefit of the doubt that it will vacuum up all of this information and never use it foolishly or bullyingly or in a bad way?

Asymmetric information:  The next time you are negotiating a new contract with a publisher, ask the publisher to show you their P&L (profit & loss) statement for the proposed acquisition.  See how far you'll get!  For all the increased amounts of information some publishers are providing, like real-time information to hard sales numbers, they are never going to negotiate where you have equal access to information with them.  They will never tell you what their actual excess of revenue over expenses is, and let you see exactly how much of that money they are willing to give to you and how much they intend to keep for themselves.  And if I come up with my own best guesses... you can trust me on this, that the publisher will always say I'm wrong but never come up with a specific beyond that.  It's similar here.  The government isn't engaged in an open exchange with any of us.  The information we need to know is a secret, and all of our information is there for them to look at.  And you don't have an agent in this negotiation.

1 comment:

J said...

The NSA is stomping all over our Constitutional rights and spend (probably) billions of dollars to fight the last war.

You're right. All the surveillance won't really stop the next attack. It probably won't even help much in that inevitable exercise we do of going back to see how we could have stopped it.

A waste. And a scary one at that.