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Should the NSA send you a check when they wiretap you?

A new National Security Agency (NSA) data center is seen June 10, 2013 in Bluffdale, Utah.

The saga of Edward Snowden and the NSA’s data collecting program, PRISM continues. Snowden did a live chat today with the Guardian newspaper in which he defended his leaking of those NSA documents a week or so ago.

Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, author of "Who Owns the Future?" and a researcher at Microsoft though he’s quick to say he does not represent the company. “The details are tremendously surprising to me,” he says. “On the other hand, what we have heard has not been entirely consistent and it’s very hard for people to articulate what software does so it might be that the impression we’re getting about what’s been leaked is not quite accurate.”

He has a suggestion for those worried the U.S. government has gone a step too far. If “information costs money,” the government might be more judicious.

“We should have a market for information where prices are set by market forces and the government has to pay the market rate,” Lanier explains.  So for example, you make a phone call and the NSA listens in. The NSA will send you a check for that information they gathered.

The wealthy become those who create more useful data. Take for example, someone who likes walking -- the government could track their movement to study the safety of sidewalks. “It’s information that wouldn’t exist if the people didn’t exist.”

And this solution -- turning data generated by the technology people use every day and the personal information it generates -- also helps solve another problem, that of technological inequality.

Lanier points out how the wealthy can profit because they have access to better and faster computers. But under his solution, it’s not about speed but the quality of data you produce.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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The NSA should offer a credit watch service.

So the terrorists can just opt out of the program? Or do we send them a check too? This is too stupid for words! And asking how did we not foresee this? Where were you when we were jumping up and down, waving our hands and screaming about the potential for abuse all those years ago? Did you think only Muslims' privacy was going to be violated? Now you're surprised it's everybody? SMH!

This is the silliest thing I've read in half a lifetime.

First, if Lanier was honestly "surprised" by any of this, he hasn't been near any sort of computers in the last 30 years. If he has been near any sort of computers, he's lying.

Second, how in the world would his system be imposed? We've known, again for a very long time, that NSA is not subject to little trivialities like laws and rules. NSA does what it wants. Period.

Third, even if we assume a nonexistent utopian country where the intel community obeys laws, we can guarantee that Lanier's system would be gamed by ordinary scammers and by hostile agents of all sorts. His "valuable walker" could intentionally walk in patterns that would screw up the algorithm. Thus none of the information would be truly valuable to anyone.

Mr (Dr.?) Lanier seems to be suggesting that we become digital prostitutes — selling bits and pieces of our identity and our daily lives in exchange for small coin. Getting paid for identity and activity data also seems to ignore the right to be left out of the process entirely. In addition, getting paid in return for the government spying on you completely ignores the issue that Edward Snowden has raised explicitly: the federal government has no business collecting the kind of data they’ve been collecting at all. It’s a violation of the 4th amendment and the right of privacy that previous SCOTUSes have asserted arises from the Bill of Rights in its entirety.

In addition, his plan does nothing to reverse the elimination of semi-skilled human labor that he bemoans losing from the U.S.

Perhaps Lanier’s book is more nuanced than this, but from this cursory interview, his vision of the future is every bit as shallow and dehumanizing as the current situation he decries.

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