The End of the Internet?

The government collects our texts and emails. Our columnist wonders why we’re so surprised.

(page 3 of 3)

Illustration by Jamie Jones

And without the Internet, I became acutely aware of how impossible it is to get anything done. Sans Google, for example, I’d have to start calling people on the phone to find things out. Of course, my landline is supplied by Verizon, which (as we now know) hands over its records to the NSA. Without Internet access, I would have to go to the physical library, like I used to, and look things up in books. Of course, the New York Public Library, after 9/11, began keeping track of the books people were reading, even in that great symbol of democracy, the Rose Main Reading Room. Wherever I go, my data trail follows.

Oh, and if I were really serious about erasing my trail I’d have to give up my Citi Bike key, my MetroCard (or pay for it with cash), and my E-ZPass. I couldn’t visit the many office buildings where they snap your photo in the lobby, or access a cash machine or, for that matter, walk down most streets because security cameras are always watching.

Giving up the Internet isn’t an option. The Internet as discreet electronic alternative to the real world is long gone. We can’t go offline because electronic data is embedded in every aspect of daily life. This isn’t a revolution anymore. It isn’t a special set of circumstances to which the old rules—like the Bill of Rights—don’t apply. It’s just life.

Which is why we need to unfriend Big Brother. We need to tell him that the party’s over, it’s time to go home. The only way to do that is to create limits to how and why the government can access the data trails we inevitably leave. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an organization formed in 1990 to defend civil liberties in new technological environments, has compiled a good list, including eliminating “bulk collection” of data (like from all Verizon customers) and making Fourth Amendment restrictions against “unlawful search and seizure” apply to searches and seizures made with a computer. 

The Internet is over because the Internet is us. The rules that apply to the myriad details about ourselves that our devices generate—whether we want them to or not—shouldn’t be any different than the rules that apply to what comes out of our mouths or our pens. Senator Wyden says, “Without adequate protections built into the law there’s no way that Americans can ever be sure that the government isn’t going to interpret its author-
ities more and more broadly, year after year, until the idea of a telescreen monitoring your every move turns from dystopia to reality.” EFF policy analyst Mark Jaycox calls a bill introduced by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy (and cosponsored by Wyden, among others) “a good start” at reining in the NSA, but adds “no [current] Congressional bill ensures that the indiscriminate collection of innocent Americans’ calling information will stop.” 

Oct 1, 2013 01:55 pm
 Posted by  13axxess

Isn't it ironic that the end of an article dealing with the effects of the internet on what we imagine privacy to be, there is an imperative to either use or create an "account" in order to participate in the discussion. We exhibit shameful ignorance about how the internet works - was designed to work. The underlying principle was and still is that Everything Is Connected To Everything. So, complaints about some of our information being available to entities we may now define as undesirable intruders are, I suggest, a bit late.

A parting thought about the subhead of the article: To imply that the government collects our texts and emails is alarmingly misleading. There are agencies that harvest metadata that affords them the ability to reconstruct the contents of a message, and to connect it to a sender and a recipient. That action is only triggered by a set of pre-determined criteria which are deemed to include potentially harmful, suspicious or outright threatening.

In short, put the cover back on the PANIC button; keep using the most transformative and ultimately positive invention since moveable type; and learn to do it within limits of common sense - like driving a car within limits of constraint that will minimize the chances for catastrophic outomes.

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