There's a classic New Yorker cartoon that features a dog sitting behind a computer, talking to another canine and sporting an impish smile. "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog," the speaker says.
That cartoon ran 20 years ago, long before smartphones and texting and Facebook, and long before the 9/11 attacks made people rethink the balance between personal privacy and national security. And yet the revelation this week that the federal government has – for years, predating the Obama administration – been collecting phone records of American citizens has shocked many people. The ensuing report that the government has been mining Internet firms' data to monitor emails, video chats and the like (connected to foreign targets, we are told) has provoked similar outrage.
The anger is understandable from those who connect sweeping government surveillance to the regimes overseas this nation has battled both in the Cold War and actual wars. And critics also wonder why President Obama, who blasted such behavior when he was a candidate, extended the Bush-era programs.
But where were these horrified critics back when a freaked-out Congress vastly expanded the powers of the government to watch us? When Congress was debating the Patriot Act, lawmakers who questioned whether the law was going to take this nation closer to a police state were shouted down as naïfs or – worse – as near-traitors. If we wanted to get "the terrorists, we were told, U.S. authorities were going to need a little more latitude in their spying activities.
If the phone records collection sounds creepy, how about "sneak-and-peek?" That lets authorities in certain circumstances come to your home, when you're not there and without your knowledge, and look through your things. And what about those National Security Letters? Those are letters from federal law enforcement that demand certain information (without a court subpoena) and then ban the recipient from even discussing the letter with anyone. That was around before 9/11, but expanded under the Patriot Act.
Back then, two forces were at play: the fear of another massive terrorist attack and the unrealistic belief by law-abiding Americans that such surveillance would never touch them. It's the same approach many people have to criminal procedure protections for the accused – a Fourth Amendment violation that looks like a "technicality when it prevents the conviction of an actual criminal suddenly looks really important when an innocent person is accused of a crime based on "evidence" illegally collected.
The same holds true when it comes to collecting information to investigate (and better yet, prevent) a terrorist attack. The Obama administration can't be happy about headlines around the world detailing the programs, or editorials attacking them for violating American citizens' privacy. But here's betting that they prefer those reports to headlines saying a deadly terrorist attack could have been averted if officials had monitored electronic communications among the attackers.
If many Americans are horrified over the loss of privacy, they might want to ask themselves whether they have contributed to it. They didn't try to stop the expansion of federal surveillance authority after 9/11. And Americans young and old are stunningly clueless when it comes to posting anything on the Internet. This applies to college students who post photos of themselves looking drunk and stupid on their Facebook pages, then are surprised when a potential employer decides she doesn't want that person on staff. It applies to workers who send scathing emails about the boss or the company to colleagues at work, absurdly confident the company isn't monitoring in-house emails. It applies to anyone who buys anything on the Internet, or even uses a search engine, and then gets targeted ads related to those purchases or searches.
The revelation of electronic surveillance that has been going on for years has rattled a lot of people, understandably so. But make no mistake: on the Internet, everyone knows you're a dog.