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July 6, 2013

The age of surveillance


Politics wasn’t his preoccupation; it was a mere distraction. How I wish I had his instinct — and his intelligence. David at the time was working on a book, “The Rise of the Computer State,” that we all thought was a work of madness. It described the threat computers posed to personal privacy and civil liberties. I worshiped the man, but I thought his theory was nuts. We all did.

The computer, after all, seemed terrifying only in its complexity, not in its capacity. In those days, you couldn’t look anything up on the computer, nor send a message. You could only type on it, and to all of us accustomed to tearing up sheaves of copy paper when we wanted to rewrite our newspaper leads, it was a godsend. Easier typing: What a concept!

But gradually I came to see that David understood what was before our eyes but what we could not envision: that the capacity to link information and to share it widely also was the capacity to learn what information individuals possess, what links individuals have, what communications individuals conduct. It is the capacity, in the language of a long-ago age, to look at people’s library cards, to ransack their garbage and to make guilt-by-association a federal crime. It is the capacity to give companies, governments and individual citizens the tools that J. Edgar Hoover sought — and the megaphone that Joseph R. McCarthy possessed.

There is no going back, of course. We cannot un-invent the computer, nor the cellphone, nor the capacious abilities we have to communicate — and to be surveilled. But we can be aware that we are living in a perilous age where our tools are also our minders and, sad to say, where our leaders see threats to our civil liberties in the narrowest possible way, when they should instead see those threats in our laptops, thumb drives and iPhones.

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