Hypothetical situation: Let’s say I’m at the library with my laptop, sitting in cubby next to a man who has his own laptop, and thanks to the way the cubbies are organized, I can see his screen every time he gets up.
He gets up to fetch a book a number of times, and each time I see what is on his screen:
Videos of beheadings
Images of wounded soldiers in Afghanistan
Videos of bombs exploding
Ecstatic crowds chanting and waving machine guns
Then I take a look at the books he has stacked up around him:
Okay, these books probably aren’t in the public library, but bear with me here.
Buddy beside me is a pleasant looking fellow. He’s not acting strange or awkward. He has never looked at me, and probably doesn’t realize that I can see his screen. It’s still rather troubling. What on earth is he doing? Why is he searching for this information?
It could be perfectly innocent. Indeed, in writing this post, I have searched for a number of images that could trigger similar suspicion to someone looking over my shoulder, who has no knowledge of what I am doing. Maybe I just landed myself on a Prism list.
What are my responsibilities? Morally, ethically, legally – do I have any obligation to report what I have just seen? Morally, I think I do, but I also understand that morality can be tricky to define and some people have wildly different ideas about what constitutes morally appropriate behavior. So let’s skip the moral question for the moment.
What are my LEGAL responsibilities?
I am going to focus here just on American law, although most modern democracies have similar statutes. In the US, there are a number of laws under which I could be prosecuted for failing to report my fellow library-goer, in the event that the worst possible scenario comes about: he builds a bomb and detonates it, taking lives and limbs from innocent bystanders.
Here is a quick summary of the laws that might apply:
Aiding and abetting
I’m no lawyer, but I would guess the most applicable law would be accessory before the fact. I knew, or ought to have known, that a crime was being planned and in failing to report that information, I was an accessory to the crime before it even happened.
This is a tricky law to apply: the prosecutors would have to prove that I KNEW a crime was being planned, and that I INTENDED to assist with that crime, which probably explains why people are rarely convicted of this offense.
That brings us back to the murky waters of morals and ethics. Even though my legal responsibility to report the potential bomb builder looks pretty shaky, do I have a moral obligation to at least inform the librarian what is happening? Maybe she’s a mandated reporter? Maybe she is already obliged to report anyone who checks out the “How to Build a Bomb for Dummies” book?
Perhaps I should pass my obligations on to the authorities, and we all know who the authority is in a library.
I’m not the only person who has been watching what our curious little friend in the library is up to, either. Like millions of other people, he searched the web using Google, and he watched videos on YouTube and sent email using his Hotmail account.
After his busy afternoon, Google rewarded him by offering him 20% off a new pressure cooker, if he clicks the link provided!
How thoughtful of Google.
The whole kerfuffle over Prism and the NSA and Andrew Snowden perplexes me. I’ve read thousands of words about the “invasion of our privacy” and the “attack on fundamental liberty” and all kinds of other dramatic and overwrought polemics.
But we never had privacy in the first place! Our data and browsing history is stored and analyzed all the time. That is how targeted internet advertising works! Google observes your browsing history, reads your emails, and chooses ads for you to view based on how that information has been analyzed. So does YouTube. So does Facebook. So does Foxfire. So does every other entity out there!
If a site has advertising, and you will note that mine does NOT, somewhere, someone is storing and analyzing your data.
In an effort to sell you some crap they figure you might want.
Now explain to me why you don’t want that same data analyzed to keep you safe from wingnuts who want to hurt you? And it’s not even YOUR data. Prism searches foreign to foreign interactions (although domestic phone calls are monitored). The NSA want access to data like “show me every person in Chechnya who watching jihad videos and sent email to Pakistan containing the words ‘bomb’, ‘timer’, ’package’ or ‘victory’.
Of course, this is where the slippery slope argument comes in. Sure, it all seems reasonable enough now, but what ELSE can the government do with that data? How soon will it be before we are ALL subject to NSA searches?
And this where I waiver. Some part of me thinks we will simply have to work through how checks and balances on the government are going to work, and another part thinks we’re handing our lives over for complete control.
Here’s an example of where this could all go so very, very wrong. I woke up this morning and my husband was in bed beside me shaking. I thought he was crying. He was reading something on his iPhone and had his face in his hands and he just handed me the phone. I thought I would be reading that his father had died or something equally terrible.
Instead I read this:
“Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs and a Big Red Box”.
Julia Gillard is the Australian Prime Minister, and the menu was featured at an opposition party’s fundraiser. Of course, the PM was outraged and decried the whole thing as grossly sexist.
Rather than sobbing, Mr. JB was actually laughing hysterically and trying not to wake up the whole house. Seriously, he couldn’t stop. He kept saying “big red box” and putting his head under the pillow to stifle his laughter. He’d come up for air and then say “huge thighs” and back under the pillow he went. This is just the sort of thing he finds riotously amusing.
He immediately texted it to a friend in Australia who works for a large defence contractor, his message captioned with a whole bunch of LOL LOL LOLs.
Now, imagine that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, under the direction of an extremely pissed off PM, was reading all emails to and from national defence contractors, identifying those that had sent, forwarded or received the Big Red Box story, along with any of the following words: LOL, hilarious, funny, etc. etc. etc. Uh-oh. That could be bad news. And if our PM is feeling vindictive, it could be VERY bad news. There goes our friend’s career.
Although honestly, that menu is a perfect example of Australia, if you ask me. Irreverent, hilarious, crude, clever and audacious, all at the same time. If she can’t handle that, she should probably consider turning in her citizenship and moving somewhere prissy like Switzerland.
I think a lot of Aussies feel the same way.
Let’s talk for a moment about the role Andrew Snowden played in this whole story: he’s been called a hero, a whistleblower, a traitor and a coward. He revealed himself as the leaker and is now in hiding, in Hong Kong, apparently. Good luck if you think the Chinese are going to protect you!
I like the Economist take on Snowden:
LET’S get the most contentious point out of the way first: Edward Snowden made the right call to make public the extent of the National Security Administration’s surveillance of electronic communications. The American people can now have a debate about whether or not they consent to that level of surveillance in order to prevent terrorist attacks, a debate that we were previously denied by the government’s unwillingness to disclose even the broad outlines of what the NSA was doing.
Snowden kick-started a conversation we need to have. If we can accept Google reading our mail and offering products and services based on that information, why can’t we accept the government reading our mail looking for potential terrorists?
Is it because we trust business leaders more than government ones?
The words of Ronald Reagan come to mind:
I’m on the fence on this one. And if Glenn Beck and Michael Moore end up on the same side, you know this issue is complicated. I’m not sure how I feel, but I do know one thing: Dinner tonight will be Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs, served in a Big Red Box.
Australia, you’re hilarious! Fuck Julia. That was awesome!
Lots of love,