It’s been a big week for the large-scale demolition of privacy and the rise of the surveillance state. First, reports surfaced about the tracking of phone calls here in the United States. The larger news involved reports of a seven-year-long systematic sweep of the Internet, code-named Prism, which allowed the government access to e-mails, Facebook accounts, and audio and video transmissions, though only of foreigners. Anthony Romero, head of the American Civil Liberties Union, had strident words of outrage he seemed to have been nursing for months. Many journalists, here and at other outlets, seemed ready to head for the barricades.
On Friday afternoon, a much shorter, more informal sweep of the Internet revealed something like a collective “not now, honey” when it came to stories dealing with massive sweeps of data about foreigners, albeit with the cooperation of homegrown companies such as Facebook (FB), Yahoo! (YHOO), Apple (AAPL), and Microsoft (MSFT). On the New York Times‘ Most E-Mailed list, national security took a back seat to digital password management, Israel, and the neurological effects of coffee. At the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan on the IRS and the cost of health insurance won out; on National Public Radio’s website, a story about selling Coke (KO) in Myanmar was a bigger draw. On Businessweek.com, our story about Costco (COST) Chief Executive Officer Craig Jelinek was four times as popular as “What You Need to Know To Understand the NSA’s Spying Program.”
Around 2 o’clock this afternoon, Slate columnist Farhad Manjoo tweeted: “Traffic on PRISM stories not really that high. True elsewhere? What does that mean?”
Jack Shafer, media critic, answered that he felt the Prism story was “Too abstract. Needs a personal angle for clicks,” which launched an avalanche of tongue-in-cheek Search Engine Optimized angle suggestions, from “13 Emails You Really Wish PRISM Hadn’t Seen” to “The PRISM Diet” to “10 Cute Kittens captured by PRISM data sweep.” At the New York Times, the jokes seemed real as “U.S. Confirms That It Gathers Online Data Overseas” trailed “This is Your Brain on Coffee.”
If it’s genuine, there are a few ways to parse the indifference.
It may be that Americans are, as the tweeted jokes suggest, vapid airheads who respond only to words such as “Kardashian” and “beach pics” and “wellness.” This line of thinking might lead to deflated expectations for the future of the nation, unless you are a Kardashian, or sell energy drinks.
It may be that Americans have become pragmatically realistic about the collection of data and the destruction of privacy—and comfortable with the prospect of intrusion, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their ability to get in touch with each other on Facebook, or e-mail those conference plans to the team in Oswego.
And it may be that Americans genuinely do not care about, or are very much at peace with, measures taken regarding foreigners in foreign countries. One could find many examples of this, from the war in Vietnam, to the continued maintenance of an offshore, extra-legal prison in Guantanamo Bay, to a deadly aerial war operated remotely. Opening a few e-mails between friends in Peshawar seems very minor in comparison to missiles raining down on villages from the sky.
These last two might suggest that the United States, far from lapsing into a beach pic coma, remains ruthlessly aggressive about the pursuit of its own interests—and to others, at least, very dangerous.