I am creeped out. No, I didn't go see "World War Z." Instead, I read in the New York Times how the guy responsible for protecting the privacy of a billion Facebook users left Facebook in 2010 for the National Security Agency. But that's only part of what's creeping me out. And it's not Edward Snowden's blowout that the government taps our phone texts and contacts and whatnot. My general reaction to that story has been: "Well, yeah?" I assumed that the government or my bosses snoop into my records and tap my phones. These days, I picture Calstate Chancellor Timothy White clicking through my emails.
So news of the NSA's Prism program had the same effect on me that I imagine the Pentagon Papers would have had back in 1971, had I not been too busy reading "Dick and Jane": Really, our government has lied to us about Vietnam?
What creeps me out is that this massive national peeping into our personal data comes even as our California lawmakers try to keep us from poking around government data, which we have had a right to since 1968, through the California Public Records Act.
They tried to attach to passage of the state budget a sneaky measure that would weaken the public records act. Gov. Jerry Brown says it would save tens of millions of dollars. But in a $97 billion state budget, that savings is chump change. And after years of astronomical deficits, we are awash with money.
As I write this column, I don't know how this will shake out. An outcry may stop the proposed changes.
This is part of what might be a national trend. According to the Sacramento Bee, back in 2011, Utah passed a law that would keep out of public hands emails, text messages and other communications by public officials. After a public outcry lawmakers repealed the measure.
Why now? The same reason that government peeping into my personal info only now makes me nervous: It isn't the data one collects that's the problem; it is what one can now do with data collected. One of the proposed changes to the CPRA would allow local agencies to give out information on paper only — which would make it difficult to analyze data.
I love Microsoft Excel. You import data into it, sort it, find the right Excel formula, and suddenly wonderful patterns appear: what money has been spent on what; where campaign money came from; which people public officials mix with in social circles. With Google Spreadsheets, you can share and pool data with other people. So now ordinary citizens can do sophisticated investigations into how government works. And that creeps out folks who work in government.
This, too, is why the more I learn about the NSA's Prism program, the more creeped out I become. It isn't that they snoop. It is that they massively snoop. And now they can dump all that data into powerful software that can sort it much better than Excel, find the right formulas and find all kinds of suspicious connections — Marcy Burstiner, a college professor, trains impressionable youth. She has a sizeable number of Chinese international students and past connections with Saudi Arabians, Lebanese, Pakistanis, disgruntled American veterans, environmental extremists, feminazi lesbians and fruititarian freegans, and she once spent three months in Malaysia — a Muslim country. And her TiVo records show she watches a disturbing number of Nazi and zombie movies and has at her bedside Julian Barnes' Sense of an Ending (which sounds apocalyptic, doesn't it?).
OMG! I'm a terrorist and I never even knew it!
Imagine if back in the 1950s, Sen. Joseph McCarthy had access to all this data and powerful databases to sort it. Imagine if the House Committee on Un-American Activities had it. I'd be so blacklisted.
We live in a time when our president justifies preemptive unmanned drone assassinations of American citizens. We have an American prison in an Air Force base on Cuba filled with people imprisoned for years without trial. We are currently using unmanned drones to patrol the U.S.-Mexican border to stop illegal crossings.
And all the checks and balances our democracy was designed around are melting. Instead of an executive branch checked by a legislative branch checked by a judiciary, we have our legislators endorsing the actions of the president, which are then given the stamp of constitutionality by the U.S. Supreme Court. And the Fourth Estate? Corporations have systematically bought up our news organizations and decimated the press.
The only protection we have left is the ability as individual citizens working collectively to monitor the actions of our government and call out our leaders when they do something too creepy. This is why people like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden feel compelled to put their own freedoms in jeopardy to leak information. Too many of the documents Snowden leaked shouldn't have been classified in the first place. And, by the way, how much of Manning's trial, which is going on now, have you heard about through the news media?
It isn't the snooping that creeps me out. It is the combined penetration into all our information at the same time that the government tries hard to keep its own information out of our hands.
I want the right to classify my own data. My iPhoto files? Classified. My Gmail account? Top Secret. My iTunes library? Fuhgeddaboudit.
Meanwhile, NSA, do me a favor. I set up a Gmail account, and I can't for the life of me remember the password I used. Can you dig it up and text it to me? You've got my number.
Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. If the NSA is really poking through her files, she pities the peon assigned the task and gives him this advice: Stick to the years '86-88. All the interesting stuff happened back then.