Your online privacy was doomed long before the NSA came along

Uproar over NSA obscures true tragedy: The fact that Congress and the courts knew and did nothing to protect our privacy

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We are long past the point where we can trust the clown college otherwise known as Congress to look out for our best interests. The "we've been briefed on this" and "we're just trying to protect our country" defenses ring hollow from a group whose public approval rating is lower than head lice. They abdicated their responsibilities a long time ago.

The intelligence community and both the Bush and Obama administrations have taken full advantage of this. The notion of "classified information" has been bastardized into "anything we'd rather the public not know." When that information does become public, it's a "grave threat to national security." And of course, anyone who leaks any of that information is a "traitor."

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, wrote a piece on Uncle Sam's addiction to overclassification for Foreign Policy three years ago:

Agency officials often make absurd, erroneous, or self-serving classification judgments -- and not just because they lack training or supervision. For example, ever since 2007, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has publicly disclosed the total budget for the National Intelligence Program. But last year, when I asked for the size of the 2006 budget, ODNI's staff asserted that the 2006 figure is still classified and would damage national security if disclosed. This is self-evidently ridiculous and reflects the widespread inability of classifiers to re-evaluate past practices in the light of new circumstances.

The real scandal here is not that the NSA is hoovering up the records of millions of innocent Americans and hiding behind spurious top-secret classifications. The real scandal is that Congress and the courts knew about this and did nothing to stop it.

The NSA is not necessarily the problem

I get it, the NSA are spies. Keeping secrets is what they do. Bad people want to hurt us, and we want them to find out who the bad people are before they get there.

But we don't need to know everything the NSA does. We just need to know where the limits are, what is and isn't considered an acceptable level of data collection, how much power individual analysts truly wield, and who is making sure they don't abuse it.

We may end up deciding that what the NSA is doing is necessary for our nation's security and that the checks and balances to protect us against abuse are adequate. But it's something we, the people, need to decide -- not a bunch of well-connected cronies behind closed doors, not a bunch of clowns who think the Internet is a series of tubes. It comes down to you and me and the rest of us, together.

If nothing else comes out of this, that would be enough.

What's your take on NSA, Snowden, and our national obsession with secrecy? Post your thoughts or write to me: I'll be compiling your opinions into yet another post on this topic over the next few days.

This article, "Your online privacy was doomed long before the NSA came along," was originally published at Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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