WASHINGTON — There is more than a little hypocrisy to the outcry that the government, through the National Security Agency (NSA), is systematically destroying Americans' right to privacy. Edward Snowden's revelations have been stripped of their social, technological and historical context. Unless you've camped in the Alaskan wilderness for two decades, you know — or should — that millions upon millions of Americans have consciously and, probably in most cases, eagerly surrendered much of their privacy by embracing the Internet and social media.
People do not open Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram accounts because they wish to shroud their lives in secrecy. They do not use online dating services or post videos on YouTube because they cherish their anonymity. The Internet is a vehicle for self-promotion, personal advertising and the pursuit of celebrity.
The Pew Research Center's surveys confirm that these behaviors are now entirely mainstream. In 2013, 85 percent of Americans used the Internet. Of these, almost three-quarters (73 percent) belonged to social media sites (the biggest: Facebook). Almost one-fifth of adult Internet users have posted videos, many hoping, says Pew, that "their creations go viral." Among people "single and looking" for mates, nearly two-fifths (38 percent) used online dating.
If Americans think their privacy is dangerously diminished, there are remedies. They can turn off their PCs, toss their smartphones and smash their tablets. Somehow, this seems unlikely, even though another Pew survey finds that "86 percent of adult Internet users have taken steps ... to avoid surveillance by other people or organizations."
To these conscious sacrifices of privacy must be added murkier, collateral losses that are orchestrated by the world's Googles, Facebooks, service providers and "data brokers," writes Alice Marwick of Fordham University in The New York Review of Books. They scan users' digital decisions (sites visited, products and services purchased, habits and hobbies favored) to create databases, often merged with other socio-economic information. These target advertising, improve political appeals — President Obama's campaign excelled at this — and influence hiring decisions, as Don Peck recently noted in The Atlantic.
The NSA's damage to privacy is dwarfed by the impact of market activity. The sensationalism surrounding Snowden's revelations obscures this. Case in point: The disclosure that U.S. telephone calls are open to NSA monitoring. Suddenly, Big Brother looms. In our mind's eye, we see the NSA's computers scouring our every phone call. We're exposed to constant snooping and the possibility that the government will misuse the information it finds.
The reality is far more limited. The NSA is governed by legal restrictions. It does not examine the full database. It searches individual numbers only after it has determined there's a "reasonable, articulable suspicion" that a number might be linked to terrorist groups. In 2012, there were 288 of these findings. After one is made, the NSA can retrieve three items about the number: the dates of calls made and received for five years; the other phones' numbers; and the calls' length. The NSA is not entitled to listen to conversations, but it can order similar searches on the other numbers involved. Thousands of calls are caught in the dragnet; but the total is puny compared with the untold billions of annual calls.
Whether these searches are effective in fighting terrorism is disputed. The NSA says they're valuable. A panel of experts appointed by Obama concluded that the monitoring "was not essential to preventing attacks." But more important for civil liberties and privacy, the panel found that present practices don't approach past abuses. During the Vietnam War, the panel noted, the CIA investigated 300,000 anti-war critics. The government also sought to "expose, disrupt, and neutralize their efforts to affect public opinion."
By all means, let's debate the NSA. Some policies seem suspect, spying on the heads of friendly governments topping the list. It's also important to recognize that government can coerce and punish in ways that private markets cannot. The potential for abuse is greater. But let's also keep the debate in perspective.
In a digitized world, spying must be digitized. Then there's cyber-warfare. Our electronic systems remain vulnerable, as the recent theft of data from millions of credit and debit cards at Target demonstrates. Government and the private sector need to collaborate more closely to protect vital systems. But these "efforts are as good as dead for the foreseeable future," says Dmitri Alperovitch of CrowdStrike, a cyber-security firm. The NSA controversy has "significantly damaged the trust between the private sector and government." This may be the Snowden affair's most insidious (and overlooked) consequence. Vilifying the NSA — letting Snowden dictate the terms of debate — promotes bad history and bad policy. It's bad history, because the most powerful assaults on privacy have originated in markets. It's bad policy, because weakening the NSA leaves the United States more exposed to cyber-attacks.
Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.