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Marketplace Morning Report

How a librarian made me a surveillance skeptic

Ben Johnson Jun 12, 2014
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I was at a dinner table about a year ago, right after the first Edward Snowden leaks, when I heard for the first time an argument I’ve heard many times since. 

“Why should I care? I’m not doing anything wrong.”

This appears to be the opinion of the majority when it comes to the idea of the government using surveillance to fight terrorism. By Pew Research’s estimates, 56 percent of Americans support the government listening in while it fights the “bad guys.” And it has been this way for something like 12 years — right after the September 11th attacks and the beginning of the war on terror. 

Whichever side of the line you’re on, part of my job as a journalist is to give you information. But as a consumer of journalism, I’ve found the stream of information about government surveillance over the last year to be exhausting and desensitizing. Heck, even data tracking and run-of-the-mill privacy online seems like such a huge issue that you want to just go Vint Cerf and suggest that privacy is an anomaly. But it’s important to at least try to understand and remember the impact of government surveillance and what we know about it. That’s why all this week we’ve been talking about your location data, your phone calls, and your address books for the Data on Our Data series. 

I get the “why should I care” argument, I swear. I’ve echoed it myself a few times. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t worry me. I support our law enforcement agencies protecting us from attacks. But I also know governments are not static; they are living, breathing organizations that change and evolve drastically over time. And when it comes to surveillance, the big question is how and whether we are thinking about a time when our government might aggressively use ready access to data against its citizens. 

It was hard enough for me, last year, to dust off my basic understanding of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the Patriot Act, and other legislation that has built the world we currently live in. But especially this week, I’ve been thinking about how governments aren’t static, and how easy it is to forget the things we’ve put in place in the name of self-preservation. 

All of this thinking about surveillance, government, and legislation has also reminded me of a chapter in my own history that I haven’t thought of in a while. During my junior year of college in 2003, I worked in the D.C. office of a moderate Republican Congressman. My main job was to answer constituent correspondence with letters that represented the Congressman’s policy positions, which he would then sign. One day near the end of my spring semester, I had an assignment I couldn’t complete: I was supposed to answer a constituent letter about a proposed expansion of the Patriot Act. The letter had been sent, and signed, by librarians throughout the Congressman’s home state who were opposed to the Patriot Act’s allowance of officials to access library records. They were asking the Congressman to oppose any extension or expansion of the legislation, and really to roll it back entirely. As I was preparing to tell the librarians that the congressman fully supported the legislation, I made a discovery. One of the librarian signatures on the constituent letter was familiar to me. It belonged to my mother. 

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