Big Brother Is Watching, and People Don't Care

A non-terrorism-related theory about why Americans are blase about surveillance.

The new Pew poll puts the matter plainly. Americans assume Big Brother is watching, and they aren't particularly upset about it:

A majority of Americans – 56% – say the National Security Agency’s (NSA) program tracking the telephone records of millions of Americans is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism, though a substantial minority – 41% – say it is unacceptable. And while the public is more evenly divided over the government’s monitoring of email and other online activities to prevent possible terrorism, these views are largely unchanged since 2002, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Now it's true, 41 percent is a substantial minority, but there is evidence that a good chunk of that is driven by politics. The guy from Pew was on NPR this morning, and he said that more Republicans are expressing opposition now (because Obama is the president) just as more Democrats used to express opposition (because Bush was). The solid, doesn't-matter-which-party level of opposition would seem to be closer to 30 percent or 25, or maybe even a little less.

The polls always ask people about the trade off between civil liberties and fighting terrorism, but I have a hunch there's something else at work here, too, which has nothing to do with terrorism. Let's call it the Karmic Information Trade-Off, or, alternatively, the Best Thai Restaurant in Bozeman Trade-Off.

We live in an astonishing age. You can be sitting at a concert or play or sporting event, and you start wondering what year the artist wrote that song or whether so-and-so ever led the league in slugging percentage, and you can find out in seconds. You're in some smallish town where you've never been in your life, Bozeman, Montana or someplace like that, and within seconds you can find not only a Thai restaurant, but the best Thai restaurant (in fact I just now Googled it and there seems to be a spirited debate between two places!).

The amount of information we have access to is astonishing. And well, you just can't have that much information at your fingertips and assume no one is watching or tracking it. It ain't the way life works, it isn't how the universe is ordered, there is no good that great that doesn't come along with some downside. This might seem superficial to some people, but I say it's precisely the opposite: This is just how nature self-regulates and has throughout the ages, and it transcends political parties and even constitutions.

So this would be going on, I think, even if 9-11 had never happened. Of course in that case it would be much more controversial, and slim majorities might well oppose. But 9-11 did happen, so the state has the cover it needs, as long as the memory of that day lingers, anyway.

So while I wouldn't say I love this state of affairs, I accept it, at least based on what we know so far (Greenwald says there's more news coming), and I promise to you that if a Repubilcan gets in there in 2017, I won't change my tune (unless of course they start using the data in a more aggressive way that raises a new set of questions).

Having said all that, my hat is off to Greenwald and my old pals and colleagues at the Guardian. Greenwald hasn't been my favorite over the years, and I sure haven't been his; what he sees as Obama apologetics on my part is in fact simply a different view from his about the national security-civil liberties balance. He took a swipe at me most recently, I think, when I wrote that yes, I think that US citizens who join enemy armies and groups do give up some of their civil rights. So we don't agree much, but I'm glad he's there making the arguments he's making, and the years of doing so earned him this scoop.