They're watching us closely

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Safety in numbers is a good rule of thumb. Go running with friends, occupy Wall Street with a crowd, see difficult relatives only at big family gatherings and, if the government is collecting data on your phone calls, be one of 314 million people in the same boat.

That way, in the unlikely event that any agents actually listen to your conversations, they'll already be so stupefied from the mindless chatter of everyone else that they'll pass out from boredom.

This is a very big country, and its residents just love to talk on the phone. A woman sitting near me last week never stopping blathering on her cell through an entire pedicure. The rest of us returned the favor by hitting the "tune out" switch in our brains. After the first five minutes, she could have been plotting to assassinate Kenny Chesney and no one would have noticed.

Of course, the best way to protect average citizens from unwarranted intrusions by the surveillance state is with strong, enforceable limitations. Failing that, in a country that has proved itself willing to trade privacy for security, the best defense is sheer numbers -- of people and of words.

And, it turns out, of mail. We learned last week that the U.S. Postal Service has been using something called the Mail Isolation and Tracking program, which uses computers to photograph the outside of every piece of paper mail processed in the United States -- about 160 billion pieces. It was developed in 2001 in response to the anthrax letters that killed five people and is used to retroactively trace mail for law enforcement agencies. The post office isn't saying how long it keeps the images.

Even the numbers defense, though, is not so great when stacked up against searchable big data. Which the good old U.S. of A. has been using to track phone calls for at least seven years, including three under George W. Bush and the last four under Barack Obama.

Now we know the extent of it, courtesy of Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency ex-contractor and current fugitive who has been releasing stolen documents purporting to show surveillance that goes far beyond suspected terrorists into the homes of everyday folks who are supposed to have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The NSA insists it is not routinely listening to our conversations, but rather storing them in a big-data system that allows analysts to see patterns -- who's talking to whom, when and for how long. If they spot something suspicious, they have to get an official OK to listen in.

But the truth is that we have no idea what the truth is, and we never have. That's kind of the point of spying.

No administration has ever leveled with the American public about what it considers critical matters of national security, for reasons that are self-evident. On the other hand, governments love secrecy so much that they will classify a grocery receipt if they can get away with it.

They tell us it's for our own good, to protect us from the bad guys, which may well be true in many cases. But in others, it's more a matter of protecting the state from us; if we knew what they were really up to, we might raise a stink.

Are the astronomical costs in time, money and lost privacy worth it? There hasn't been another domestic attack on the scale of Sept. 11, 2001, and officials tell us it's because a number of schemes were disrupted due to surveillance. On the other hand, the Boston Marathon bombers were able to pull off their plot, big data notwithstanding.

This doesn't even take into account all the domestic spying that the FBI has been doing since 2008, when it was authorized to investigate U.S. residents based on zero suspicion of criminal activity and to save the information for decades, just in case.

And it's not particular to the current administration, although its scope seems to have exploded under Mr. Obama with aid of technological advancements.

The U.S. government has conducted at least three previous spying operations aimed at U.S. citizens under both Republican and Democratic leadership. The last of these (that we know of) ended in 1975, after a Senate inquiry sparked by public outrage led to a system that was supposed to prevent abuses.

According to a paper from an Army intelligence journal, posted on Secrecy News -- http://blogs.fas.org/secrecy/ -- those operations were: Project Shamrock, 1945-75, which collected telegraph communication; Project Minaret, 1960-73, which looked at terms and names of interest for intelligence; and the Drug Watch Lists, 1970-73, which kept tabs on suspected drug traffickers.

What you believe about domestic spying, data collection, mail tracking and so on depends a lot on whom you trust. If anyone. Especially given the technological ability to intrude just about anywhere, anytime, for any or no reason. And it's not just the government doing it -- private companies are mining data like crazy, too. Furthermore, the public is making it easier for them every day, offering up even the most mundane details of daily life on social media for all the world to see, collect, collate and use.

The balance between privacy and security is a fragile one, but even numbers and laws are no match for technology that allows us to do things because we can, not because we should. A nation complicit in its own surveillance really shouldn't profess shock at being surveilled.

sallykalson

Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (skalson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1610).


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