Dear NSA

Dear NSA,

I've never really been into privacy. I'm the kind of guy who takes a piss with the door ajar so I can continue the conversation from within the bathroom. I don't clear my internet browser history after watching porn. I've purposely left an old picture up on Facebook of me from freshman year, draining a handle of vodka, just to screen out nosy, would-be employers.

I've never really given a shit what Facebook or Google does with my information. Jolie O'Dell, the curious amalgamation of narcissistic naivety mixed with pious pessimism, and voice actress for any Disney film featuring a baby mouse, said earlier this year on TWiT (29:27 and do listen to this self-righteous bullshit) that trading personal information for services with a company like Google turns human beings into commodities. She believes that we're all just meat-bags full of valuable advertising data to Google. That does sound awful, and it's probably true. Then I began to think about the alternative- paying money for those services. On the surface that might seem like a more honest transaction, but how would I get that money? Oh that's right, I'd have to enter into a contract with a soulless corporation and agree to sell the only asset I actually have, the priceless hours of my life, as a commodity, like a common whore turning tricks in a back alley. ACME Co. would slap an ID number on me and tell me to perform eight hours a day like an organ grinder's monkey until I'd grown too old and frail to be of value anymore and they replaced my tired, empty husk with the next generation of human capital. Wake up, O'Dell. There is no escape from commodification. Even rock stars, athletes, and Pulitzer Prize winners trade the precious moments of their existence for X number of dollars; just because the wage is good and the work is fun doesn't mean you're not a commodity. Sustenance farmers make the same exchange, only they're paid by the soil in grains of rice instead of in dollars by a corporation. 

Instead of all that, Google gives me excellent search results in exchange for showing me an ad for something I might actually be interested in purchasing... which I don't see anyway because I use Adblock Plus, like any other half-savvy internet user. Uh, yeah... I'll take whatever's behind door two.

Europeans are crazy about privacy. Crazy and moronic. In the following three paragraphs, I shall explain why.

A TV news crew walked up to me on the street in Paris two years ago waving photos of scantily-clad teenage girls around, asking loaded questions about internet privacy and generally trying to goad me into giving a ten second soundbite blaming Facebook for all that is wrong in the world. But the ubiquity of sexting would seem to suggest that showing people one's bratwurst or stinkmuffin via electronic communication is a fundamental human urge which extends well beyond Facebook's purview. That and, for Christ's sake, who are these morons who post things onto a social network that they don't really want anyone to ever see? "Had to post a pic of me cutting up this eight-ball, but I'm pretty sure the privacy restriction is set to 'close friends only,' so I don't see what could possibly go wrong here."

I can't tell you the number of times I've overheard a pack of Luddite college kids on a German campus bitching about smartphones and talking about the "good old days," which for an eighteen-year-old means pining away for those tween years when they used to lock themselves in their bedroom for hours after school every day, clacking out messages in ICQ on the Compaq laptop their parents had gotten them. Of course the other half of the group aren't listening to this sermon on the evils of digital distraction because they're playing Clash of Clans, messaging on WhatsApp, or are dick deep in an ongoing Instagram stalking. False identities on Facebook are also popular among this set. Oh yeah, that'll do it. Just switch up the first letters of your first and last names. You've thrown them off the trail now. Cookies, your IP address, and the PRISM program get all confused when you use a clever synonym like Jobert Rohnson.

Recently, a dude in Catalonia bitched that his embarrassing old foreclosure posting came up too high in the search results when people googled his dumb ass. As a result the Spanish court set a EU-wide precedent by censoring Google search results in an Orwellian attempt at rewriting history on behalf of a fuck-up looking for an anachronistic mulligan. The ruling is entitled Right to be Forgotten, aka Right to Whitewash your Past among People who Don't Really Understand Computers. Great for the neighborhood's confirmed life-long bachelor, INTERPOL suspect, and former NAMBLA chapter president who stares down your son from the kitchen window as your kid walks to school every morning; irrelevant to any HR director who's savvy enough to type in into the browser instead of before your interview. 

I've never really cared about the NSA either. People always compare this surveillance to what's happened in totalitarian states, but the problem with East Germany wasn't that they did a little too much spying. They weren't a great, liberal democracy with an unfortunate addiction to peeping. The problem was what they were looking for. Dissent was against the law. The law was the issue, not the spying used to find out whether people had broken it. The constitution and the fundamental principles of an authoritarian state are what make it an authoritarian state, not the tactics which are then used to keep it from collapsing.

The essential question is not "what information?" or "who's collecting it?,"  but rather "why are they collecting it?" and "what are they going to do with it?" That's not to say this Brave New NSA World isn't scary- it's just that most people are scared for the wrong reasons. 

We are all law breakers- most of us have bought, sold, or at least used illegal drugs like marijuana. We all drive over the speed limit from time to time. We've all sold something on craigslist without reporting the income on our taxes. There are a trillion tiny laws about everything, and the only reason we tolerate this micromanagement is because these laws are rarely enforced. The average American commits three felonies per day. That shadow which resides in the gap between law and enforcement is where the good shit happens. That's where fun comes alive and dreams are made. A society with no privacy would require a complete rethink of almost every statue and law. But that's a long way off and it looks like the NSA may already be using the information they collect for non-national-security purposes. Now that is bad. We already lock up more people than any other country on earth.

The European driver experiences two emotions while motoring- a feeling of safety,
and the complete and total absence of anything akin to freedom, fun, or autonomy. 

The exception is Germany, where drivers get to feel that sweet, ironic frustration 
that comes from being stuck in a traffic jam on a highway with no speed limit.

A society without privacy wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, in fact I think it could even be Utopian. Sure it's a hard sell- many people's self-esteem is secretly in tatters. We would be loathe to give up the thin layer of secrecy and deception in which we do our spin doctoring and image manipulation. But might it not be healthier to drop the pretenses? Might it not be better to bare our flaws and addictions and problems to the open light of day instead of constantly wrapping them in the festering rags of bluff, denial, and misdirection? But it would radically alter everything, from manners to constitutions. And of course the great danger is informational asymmetry. Those in power can see your internet porn addiction, but are able to hide their own mistresses. Then they can hypocritically point the finger from atop the black horse painted white.

What I'm really concerned about right now though is hurting Silicon Valley- the heart and future of the post-industrialization American economy. How much longer are the US and ICANN going to be trusted as the sole guardians and administrators of the internet? Our immense home-field advantage will whither as the rest of the world stops trusting us and stops playing ball. The NSA is not only shredding through our top companies' reputations and ensuring that they will receive less future business from foreign agencies, governments, privacy freaks, and corporations that deal in discretion or depend on trade secrets. The NSA is also creating backdoor exploits that weaken the overall security of American products and industry standards. There's even a name for the current international backlash against American tech products- The Snowden Effect.

And the hypocrisy of this whole Huawei thing is also pretty damn hard to swallow. Does anyone remember in 2012 when Congress essentially banned Huawei and ZTE from taking large contracts in the US because they accused the companies of being in cahoots with the Chinese government's surveillance apparatus? Because I do. As if Snowden's revelations a year later didn't highlight the hypocrisy enough, it turns out the NSA had actually been spying on Huawei's servers the whole time.

And now China has declared the iPhone to be a national security threat. It's a false pretense in a trade war and the Chinese government is full of shit... but they aren't wrong. And that's thanks to you, NSA.

Sebastian Braff


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