2 min read

NSA Wiretaps, MySpace, and Virtual Surveillance

Earlier this week, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales faced questioning from the Senate Judiciary Committee, in regards to legitimacy of the Bush Administration’s NSA wiretapping surveillance program. Mr. Gonzales wrote an editorial, published Monday morning in the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Editorial entitled America Expects Surveillance.

Mr. Gonzales’ case as stated in this editorial and also before Congress is that the President had the authority to use such tactics in order to protect “both the security of the nation and the rights and liberties we cherish.” He also points to specific examples in America’s history where similar tactics were used:

History is clear that signals intelligence is, to use the language of the Supreme Court, “a fundamental incident of waging war.” President Wilson authorized the military to intercept all telegraph, telephone and cable communications into and out of the U.S. during World War I. The day after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt authorized the interception of all communications traffic into and out of the U.S.

While the title of his piece is not necessarily addressed through his argument, I find the idea behind it most interesting. Outside of the legitimacy of his claims, I found myself wondering, do Americans expect surveillance?

I can think of more than several cases where the answer is most definitely yes.

Consider the fact that in most every store today, there are video surveillance cameras. Many places of work have the same, especially in mission critical data centers or areas of confidentiality.

The Internet is no different. IP addresses are logged for nearly every website someone visits. Online activity is identifiable enough that college students can be busted for illegally downloading copyrighted material.

But what made me really start thinking is what I’ve been hearing about parents and MySpace. A Dateline special that aired near the end of January was actually entitled Why parents must mind MySpace. And many parents are now “spying” on their kids’ online activity.

I see nothing wrong with parents ensuring their kids are behaving online. For that matter, nor do I with the MPAA trying to use the proper channels to enforce copyrighted material from not being illegally downloaded or distributed. Or in search engine companies handing over non-identifiable search queries to the federal government when requested.

Digital citizens still feel empowered to disregard established law (or in the case of kids, disobey their parents), believing the Internet provides them a cloak of invincibility from repercussions. They do not believe that “virtual surveillance” really even exists because unlike the cameras in the store, they haven’t seen them – at least not until recently.

Thus, the issue in all these cases is found in the perception of surveillance. In instances where people have commonly accepted some sort of checks and balances, they do in fact “expect surveillance” and have a harder time disputing the consequences for wrongful actions.

With amendments to laws to match technical advancements, netizens will soon begin to understand that the virtual world is not all that different from the physical one. The presence of virtual surveillance will be felt. And that may help curb some of the dangers or crimes in the deep dark alleys of the Internet.

Join thousands reading my insights on remote strategy, leadership, & operations.