Manning, Snowden and Me

Someone stated in an article I read this morning that more people have been tried under the Espionage Act during Obama’s administration than all other presidents combined. On one hand, that bothers me a lot. On the other hand, I find it akin to saying that President Nixon watched more television during his presidency than Abraham Lincoln. It’s the reason laws must be re-examined every few years — a side effect of technological progress. The more rigidly unthinking we are about what has gone before or the fact that unintended consequences of our actions often occur because we can’t predict the future of that technology, the more often the laws need to be re-examined.

I remember being a little unsettled about the embedding of journalists with military units in Iraq back in 2003-2004. I found it curiously like putting a fan with a mike in the dugout of a baseball team reporting for all to hear what the signs the third-base coach keeps making mean, and how indignant the team would be that their opponent had stolen their signs. It’s okay, too, to put a speaker and microphone in the helmet of a football player, because of the surprise.

I wrote a blog back in July about my database years in the telecom industry. I had access to literally thousands of telephone call records and charges for them that I was searching through to find opportunities for cost-savings. It would have been just as easy for me to sort the data by the telephone number called or the extension from which the call had come, yet I can assure you that 99% of the people who worked in the company and made the calls had no idea that an outside contractor was analyzing that data, much less that I could just as easily have analyzed their individual calling patterns if I had been asked to answer a question about them.

During college, I worked at a telephone company as a switchboard operator. Back then, the way you were billed for calls depended on the physical stamping of a key-punch card to define when a call started and finished. The only way for an operator to know, especially on coin-phone calls, was to “listen in.” I usually erred to the side of the customer — if the caller was saying “goodbye” and I saw that the last breath was going to extend into another minute (which meant being charged for another minute), I usually went ahead and stamped the call as completed.

There were always accusations that operators were “listening in” on calls by some who knew that we had the ability to do it, but what was interesting to me was that the people who complained usually turned out to be “up to something,” as Lewis Grizzard might have said.

As a 17-year-old, I was in no place to decide what qualified as “up to something” and what didn’t, much less tell anybody else about it. In that small town, where everybody mostly knew everybody else, the word about those who were “up to something” usually got out anyway through other “vines.”

These days, I often wonder what I might have done back then if I’d happened to overhear someone planning something illegal (or immoral according to my particular code of morality). I’ll never know the answer to that question. I don’t know the answer to the question of what I would do if it happened now, 40 years later. Nor am I so clear on whom I might trust to tell.

It’s the double-edged sword of the “right” to privacy vs. the “right” to safety, a debate that’s been going on longer than any of us have certainly been alive and will outlive us. Our Constitution does not suggest that privacy is a right protected under the laws of the U.S. The right not to be searched or have our things seized without evidence of wrongdoing, on the other hand, is. Call records and emails and texts are now part of that world of evidence, but not all. And anyone who has any experience with databases knows what I know — that there is no way to collect data on specific call records or emails without first collecting data on ALL call records and emails.

I guess it comes down to whether we trust the judgment and intent of people like me and the “bosses” of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning.

Then again, maybe it really comes down to whether or not you’re “up to something.”

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