Since the NSA surveillance story broke Wednesday night, I’ve been around—both in person and online—a lot of journalists conscientiously working to get a handle on it. But in addition to trying to understand the who, when, why, and where of a complex story, I’ve seen plenty of people in the news media grappling with the question of just how much Americans care about this issue, and how much they should.
After all, many people likely already assumed that both governments and big corporations have long had the ability to monitor our communications. We might not like it—but in an era when we’re used to seeing online ads for soccer equipment moments after sending an email about soccer, we’re not shocked by it. And since it doesn’t seem to affect our daily lives, many Americans are likely to see it as an abstract issue, the way most people see process issues like campaign finance reform.
To be clear, my point isn’t to minimize the import of what we’ve learned over the last 24 hours. Plenty of smart, serious people sound deeply concerned, and that counts for a lot. But I do think that on the whole, the people who worry about these issues haven’t done a great job of explaining clearly just what are the potential negative consequences of this massive surveillance. I’m talking about tangible consequences that could actually affect ordinary Americans.
Once we have a better understanding of that, then we can start to think about how to balance those concerns with the competing imperatives of security. But until we have a better grasp on the potential harms, it’s like we’re flying blind.
Again, my point isn’t that those harms don’t exist. I think that, at least in the long run, they probably do. But I couldn’t explain what they are, and my sense is that not many people could. And although I might have missed it—the internet is big, after all—I haven’t seen a great explanation out there that does what I”m looking for, with specific reference to this week’s revelations.
Anyone seen anything like that? Leave it in comments, if so. And if not, maybe there’s an assignment for some smart civil libertarian.