“Well, I can’t say I love that they are keeping track of every phone call in the US, but then again, the people who are most likely to use this for political gain are the same ones who cried loudly that “we should have known” about 9/11 and if another attack occurs, they will surely be the first to cry the same thing again. We cannot have it both ways.” That’s a quote from Lee L. on a message board at the website Ars Technica. A familiar lament, but here’s the thing: it’s from May 11, 2006. Edward Snowden may have stamped his name last year on the story of the NSA’s deep and broad surveillance machinery, but to those paying attention, nothing he revealed is shocking, or even surprising. Lee L. is not a government operative, just a technology guy, yet he knew then the essence of what Snowden later revealed. It’s not overcooking the point to remind ourselves that 2006 was a long eight years ago: Barack Obama was a freshman senator, the surge in Iraq hadn’t yet happened, David Halberstam was still alive, and Facebook was just a site for students.
In other words, there have been data galore since then, multiplying like cancer cells. (The second largest personal data collection company, according to the New York Times, logs 50 trillion data transactions per year.) The NSA’s appetite for information is no more insatiable than it was in the past; it’s just that the feast has increased in bounty and flavor by stunning orders of magnitude. Look at the information Nixon, with the help of other familiar acronyms (CIA, FBI) compiled on those comprising his so-called “enemies list.” Most were never accused of anything, but their chunky files epitomized invasion: if Nixon feared you, he knew whether you preferred the Cabernet, and what way you liked your eggs on Tuesdays. And that’s the problem. Many people today are outraged by the idea of the NSA collecting private information, rather than any tangible result of this transgression. (And they should be equally outraged, if not more so, by the depth of commercial enterprise data collection. Target knows a lot about you, for instance, whether you shop there or not.) But the data collection is still seen in the abstract–the pernicious effects of it haven’t been felt by most, and so the objections focus on the potential for abuse, on theory. What if, as a recent New York Review of Books article asked, another Nixon got elected? His paranoia combined with the vast surveillance machinery now at a president’s disposal would likely visit a tsunami upon individual liberties, blowing down painstakingly constructed walls and leaving democracy in shambles. Or what if someone as petty, as recent news reveals, as NJ Governor Chris Christie were to be given such tools? Think of the lanes he could close then–not just a couple on the inbound George Washington Bridge, but myriad individuals’ avenues to career advancement, proper credit, educational opportunities, scholarships, grants, medicine–all manner of rights and dignities. When it comes to weapons–which is what data collection is (the NSA, by its own admission, uses it as a weapon in the “war on terror”)–a non-partisan goal is to keep the most dangerous ones out of the hands of dangerous people. And we too often don’t know who the latter are until it’s too late. Chris Christie may look like he’s only a heartbeat away from myocardial infarction, but he’s also just a few heartbeats away, in some powerful strategists’ plans, from the presidency. And whether he’s found culpable in the idiocy of the bridge debacle, his deputies surely are. We should make sure another Nixon, whatever name he goes by this time, doesn’t have more information–or weapons–than he or she should. Tyranny begins with temptation. That’s one of the things about potential: sometimes it happens.