I've been watching the progress of the US domestic wiretapping saga with interest.
After the politically motivated surveillance forays of previous administrations and the security-justified activities of this one, it seems the issue isn't going away; there exists the need to find a balance between national security and the right to privacy that is democratically satisfactory.
At the moment the telecommunications companies that complied with the administration are not commenting on the matter publicly, citing national security concerns, and while they do not yet have immunity, they have the right to defend themselves in a closed court. As far as I gather.
So what of a government monitoring its citizens?
'An honest man has nothing to fear from a policeman,' only stands true if you assume the policeman is also honest, and no one wants to make that assumption without assurances. Which is why a widespread program of warrantless wiretapping is a frightening prospect. There is an epic potential for misuse of information gathered through insufficiently controlled channels. Even Presidents of The United States are not immune from these temptations..
A government that demands complete transparency in financial, political and social practices would provoke outcry, and a government with no electronic intelligence gathering capacity would be a crippled entity indeed in the 21st century, regardless of geopolitical standing.
I don't wish to comment upon what kinds of surveillance are suitable, but I think intelligence agencies are a useful and valuable tool for a nation when tempered with adequate checks and balances. I do not want anyone eavesdropping on my personal communications unless an adequately independent third party has deemed it necessary for criminal or civil investigation. That's my tuppence.
Where can we look for an established balance of privacy and the interests of society as a whole?
As an engineer I like to take things down to nuts and bolts, and physics has a great tradition of established thought experiments where the unknown is concealed. Let's set ourselves up with a thought experiment.
Let's take a man carrying out some sort of activity in a box, and say that that there is a probability he is doing something damaging to society.
What do you want to do about it?
Because there is only a probability he is doing something damaging to society, we have to factor in the possibility that he's just going about his own business when we select our strategy.
From a security standpoint we can either watch him or listen to him, and because he could do something silently, I think watching is preferable.
So let's cut a hole in the box so we can see what he's doing.
From an ideal security standpoint we'd like to get rid of the box entirely, but the man in the box has his own interests, his own motives for going about his business, and he doesn't want to be constantly watched.
So we need a hole, and we need to come to a socially acceptable agreement about how big this hole should be. Naturally, how big the hole is will depend on the relative importance of security and privacy - how likely do we, as observers, think that the man in the box is up to no good? If we think it highly likely we should push for a big hole. If the man in the box resents our intrusion and passionately demands his privacy, he will push for a small hole or no hole at all. This balance can be seen as a product of the priorities of the people involved - or, extrapolating, the society where the experiment takes place.
There is an analogy for this process we're describing, and socially acceptable balances have already been worked out - differently for different societies, and America has settled on a solution. It might seem utterly ridiculous, but bear with me here.
I'm talking about toilet cubicles.
In our hypothetical situation let's exchange national security for morally acceptable behaviour, our metaphorical box for a physical box, and the man's private business for the man's private business.
Now we have a very real desire for privacy on the part of the man, versus an external societal standard of what is and isn't acceptable behaviour (which might be the only spot where this analogy falls down, but run with this) - and a box.
In America the average toilet stall or cubicle wall starts a good 12' off the ground and proceeds for five feet upwards, where it stops. It is impossible to do anything in an American toilet cubicle without your neighbours being aware of it. And when I say 'anything' I mean anything - ranging from sending a text message to reading a newspaper to using the toilet cubicle for the purpose it was installed. All of that 'information' is shared, but it doesn't seem to be a problem for people. Coming from the UK, where floor-to-ceiling toilet walls are common, American toilets take a lot of getting used to. It's not pleasant, having all this information. It's certainly not pleasant receiving it, but it's also unnerving to know that your movements are being so clearly broadcast as well; it is unpleasant to have less privacy.
Then, after a while...you stop thinking about it.
This pitch of mine might seem a bit wacky but it's not that far fetched. An invasion of our personal privacy in the toilet is something we would find distasteful and makes us uncomfortable. It's not a man from the government with a clipboard and a tape recorder outside the toilet cubicle, but our peers and fellow workers, or fellow restaurant patrons. But privacy in our personal actions gives us security and comfort, and once it is removed, we feel the lack of it. And then, gradually, we adjust to our new normality.
So taking all this on board my prediction is this: the telecommunications companies will receive no censure for cooperating with the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program. After a while a bill will be proposed that allows domestic surveillance of US citizens without a warrant with limitations such as a time restriction - surveillance cannot continue for longer than a month without a warrant or a signoff from another independent body. After a swell of sound and fury, that will get signed into law and it will become completely normal.