The revelations about the scope of National Security Agency surveillance from the documents released to the public by Edward Snowden have been so numerous and so extraordinary that I fear we may be becoming numb to them. That's partly because there's just been so much, one revelation after another to the point where the latest one doesn't surprise us anymore. It's also partly because mixed in with the genuinely distressing surveillance programs are some things that seem almost ridiculous, like the idea of NSA agents trying to unearth terrorist plots in World of Warcraft. But there are some basic facts about this whole affair that should make us all really frightened. We can sum it up as follows:
1. The scope of the NSA's surveillance is far greater than almost anyone imagined.
2. Barack Obama is not only perfectly fine with that surveillance, he was perfectly fine with it being kept secret from the American public.
3. As much discussion and consternation as Snowden's revelations produced, there has been no restraint on those surveillance powers, nor is there likely to be any time soon.
4. As new technologies and techniques of surveillance are developed, the NSA will incorporate them into its arsenal, continually expanding its reach.
5. Before long, there will be a Republican president who will appoint hundreds of other Republicans to high-ranking positions within the intelligence apparatus. Many of these will be former Bush administration officials and/or people who would like nothing more than to expand the NSA's surveillance of both foreigners and Americans as much as is technologically feasible.
We may have no more than three years to do something about it. Or it may be too late already.
As anyone who has worked in pretty much any job knows, "working" and "getting things done" are most assuredly not the same thing. Take Congress, for instance. These days, do they get things done? No, not if by getting things done you mean passing laws, which is ostensibly their job. Now it's true that members of Congress do other things—they conduct investigations, they help constituents track down errant Social Security checks, and so on—but they're lawmakers first and foremost, and we've seen few Congresses that have done less in the law-passing department than this one.
What's strange, though, is that this inability to pass laws is often transmuted into the idea that members of Congress are lazy. I was glad to see Alex Seitz-Wald point this out today, because it's bothered me for a long time:
Thankfully, you no longer have to check your vacuum tubes before sending an email.
Friday is tech day for me, so here's the question of the day: What will happen when computers are so ubiquitous, and have become so seamlessly integrated into the objects that surround us, that we don't even think of them as computers anymore? It can often be hard for us to imagine what life with very different technologies might be like, particularly for those of us who are extremely dependent on current technologies. I spend most of my day staring at my computer; if you asked me how I'll do my job when computers have become invisible, I'd have no idea.
The possibility of computers becoming essentially invisible is raised in this BBC article:
This Saturday is the one-year anniversary of the Newtown shooting, and it's remarkable where we've come in that time. In the weeks that followed, everyone said that now we could finally pass some sensible measures to stem the river of blood and death and misery that is the price we pay for America's love of firearms. President Obama proposed some extraordinarily modest measures: enhanced background checks, limits on the kind of large-capacity magazines mass murderers find so useful, perhaps even a new ban on new sales to civilians of certain military-style weapons. Not a single thing that would keep a single law-abiding citizen from owning as many guns as he wants.
So here we are, a year later, and what has happened? First of all, at least 30,000 more Americans have had their lives cut short by guns; tens of thousands more were shot but survived. Around 200 children have been shot to death in that time—another 10 Newtowns. There was no federal legislation on guns. It died, because there are a sufficient number of Republicans (and a couple of Democrats) who, quite frankly, looked on one hand at a child getting murdered, and on the other hand at some armchair Rambo having to go a whole mile to the police station to get a background check before buying an AR-15 from his neighbor, and decided that the latter would be a greater moral outrage than the former.
After a long period in which few people outside liberal circles talked about increasing the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 an hour, the issue is now in the headlines almost every day. Fast food workers will be striking in 130 cities around the country to demand a higher minimum wage on Thursday. The Washington, DC city council just voted unanimously to increase the city's minimum wage in stages to $11.50.