(Published in the Gettysburg Times, 5/2/2014)
During a question and answer period on Russian Television, Russian President Vladimir Putin took one from Edward Snowden – famous in this country for revealing that our National Security Agency has been collecting information on all, or most, of us. Snowden asked Putin whether the Russian government spies on it’s citizens.
Putin was shocked at the suggestion. Of course not, he said. We have laws against such activities.
Here, news organizations spent hours speculating Snowden tossed the softball question to his benefactor; the man wanted in the U.S. for leaking state secrets is, after all, Vladimir’s guest. Snowden has since said he did not intend his question to be a softball, but rather a chance for Putin to lie about what all western travelers to Russia know:
Russia spies on everyone.
Meanwhile, U.S. cell phone providers announced that beginning next year, all their new phones will contain chips allowing the devices to be “bricked” – made permanently inoperable – remotely, by the companies. There is thievery in the countryside, the companies say, so all a cell phone owner need do is report his phone stolen, and the company would render it useless.
And in the event terrorists or others opposing what in my youth was called “The Establishment” are discovered to be coordinating their activities with cell phones, law enforcement has but to ask and their phones also can be rendered useless.
I couple years ago, my eldest granddaughter asked what technology was like when I was her age. In 1965, the year I graduated from high school, calculators capable only of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing were banned in class because they gave “unfair advantage” to those whose parents could afford to buy them.
Morgan was on her smartphone, a device with more power than all the building-size systems that, less than a half-century earlier, guided Apollo 13 to the moon and back.
But most user electronics was one-way – the radio station transmitted and the listener received. Now?
In the late 1980s, my wife had a “Preferred Customer” card at the Shop’n’Save. She did not quite grasp that the store now knew what hours she worked, how much money she made, and how many kids she fed with it. She shopped a couple times a week at about 7:15 p.m., and often bought milk and generic cereal.
A couple years later, a friend bragged about his new EZ-Pass, and when I told him the state now knew when he worked and probably where, he demurred – but the state knew what kind of car he had, the condition of his credit rating, his job and that a certain school system was the only employer paying that well within proximity of his every-morning exit.
That was the early 1990s. Now there is facial recognition software and cameras on street corners. OnStar can unlock our car when we come back from fishing in a secluded stream far from civilization, and discover we’ve left the keys inside. And police in some jurisdictions can stop us for speeding and download the contents of our cell phone to see whether we were texting at the same time. (Texting while driving is not exactly a safe practice, but I’m just saying …)
And now comes Google Glass, a $1,500 spectacle we can wear to report to Google everyplace we go and everyone we see there.
Many of us are old enough to remember filling out forms with questions that had nothing to do with the job or benefit we were seeking. Some of us were suspicious the reason the prospective provider asked the question was simply “because he could.”
It’s no surprise that in its declared effort to keep us safe from whatever boogieman we suspect threatens us, the NSA collects information about all of us. It doesn’t necessarily look at it, but it collects it.
Because it can.
It was a silly question Mr. Snowden asked Mr. Putin, and a fitting answer returned.