By the time you read this, President Obama will probably have finished his speech outlining some changes to the NSA's global information vacuum. According to early reports, he'll propose creating an independent body to hold the phone metadata that the NSA gathers, and forcing the agency to get some kind of approval (presumably from the FISA court) before accessing it. Which is all fine and good. But the real question is whether we set up procedures and systems that constrain the NSA from doing not just what we already know about, but the things we haven't yet heard of, and even more importantly, the kinds of surveillance that will become possible in the future.
Just today, we learned from the Guardian that "The National Security Agency has collected almost 200 million text messages a day from across the globe, using them to extract data including location, contact networks, and credit-card details, according to top-secret documents." I can't imagine that will be the last revelation from the documents obtained by Edward Snowden. Do you find that disturbing? If not, imagine what it's going to look like ten or twenty years from now.
Predicting the development of technology is often difficult to do accurately, but we can be almost positive that in the very near future there will dramatically more information about you being collected than there is today. Your phone metadata is nothing compared to what will be gathered. There will be reasonable justifications for every step along the way, of course, ways in which each new advancement in the technology enhances your life. For instance, eventually the idea of using a piece of metal with grooves cut into it in order to get into your house will seem like a quaint anachronism, and that will be more convenient, since you won't have to carry your keys anymore. Once you have some kind of biometric entry system, it will be linked to other systems in your home that will constantly be producing data about where you go and what you do. You think Google bought Nest because it's interested in temperature adjustment and smoke detection? Of course not. Google is interested in data, and data about what happens in your home—when you come and go, when you're awake and asleep, what kinds of energy you use—that's a growth area.
Your phone tracks your movements, and future phones will monitor much more. There's a network of surveillance technologies, including but not limited to security cameras, that grows more dense and sophisticated with each passing year. Law enforcement agencies across the country use license plate scanners that can monitor everyone who drives on certain roads. These kinds of technologies will be integrated with improved face-recognition software, all powered by increasingly capable computers with the capacity to store, sort, and analyze the huge quantities of data produced. If you want to live as a participant in the modern world—having a smartphone, using the Internet, going out in public—you are already being tracked, and tomorrow you'll be tracked more closely than you are today, your every step leaving bits of data that can be gathered together and reconstructed to learn more about you than you could possibly want corporations or the government to know.
And make no mistake: the NSA wants every bit of it. There is no piece of surveillance data that couldn't at least potentially be used to catch a terrorist or stop a plot, so they'll always be able to say (with complete sincerity, by the way), that they only want to protect national security, and the more information they have about all of us, the easier it will be. So making sure that some semblance of privacy is protected in the future will take a hell of a lot more than sectioning off cell phone metadata. That's a start. But it's only a start.
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