October 7, 2012
We’ve written plenty about how the US government has been quite aggressive in spying on Americans. It has been helped along by a court system that doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the 4th Amendment and by the growing ability of private companies to have our data and to then share it with the government at will. Either way, in a radio interview, Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin (who’s been one of the best at covering the surveillance state in the US) made a simple observation that puts much of this into context: the US surveillance regime has more data on the average American than the Stasi ever did on East Germans. And, of course, as we’ve already seen, much of that data seems to be collected illegally with little oversight… and with absolutely no security benefit.
To be fair, part of the reason for why this is happening is purely technical/practical. While the Stasi likely wanted more info and would have loved to have been able to tap into a digitally connected world like we have today, that just wasn’t possible. The fact that we have so much data about us in connected computers makes it an entirely different world. So, from a practical level, there’s a big difference.
That said, it still should be terrifying. Even if there are legitimate technical reasons for why the government has so much more data on us, it doesn’t change the simple fact (true both then and now) that such data is wide open to abuse, which inevitably happens. The ability of government officials to abuse access to information about you for questionable purposes is something that we should all be worried about. Even those who sometimes have the best of intentions seem to fall prey to the temptation to use such access in ways that strip away civil liberties and basic expectations of privacy. Unfortunately, the courts seem to have very little recognition of the scope of the issue, and there’s almost no incentive for Congress (and certainly the executive branch) to do anything at all to fix this.