Do Folks Who Are Furious About The NSA's Data Collection Understand The Difference Between 'Collecting' And 'Using'?

James Bond and carCarry on, James.

There is a wide range of opinion about the National Security Agency’s data collection program.

Some people are fine with it — anything to protect America against terrorism and other national security threats.

Others are a bit uneasy about it, but support the government doing what it needs to to protect the country.

Others, meanwhile, are furious and appalled at what they view as a scary, illegal invasion of privacy by an evil government extending its own power.

Which of those views you hold, interestingly, seems to correlate with your age. Older people tend to be more comfortable with the NSA program, and younger people tend to be more upset about it. Middle-aged people meanwhile, tend to fall into, well, the middle.

I’m middle-aged, so, not surprisingly, that’s where I come down on this.

I’m a bit uneasy about the NSA collecting and storing all that information, but I don’t regard merely collecting and storing it as an outrageous invasion of my privacy. As long as what the NSA can do with this information is limited and subject to appropriate checks and balances, you won’t see me marching on Washington about it.

My attitude toward this, I think, is the result of three factors:

  • First, I lived through the Cold War,  as well as Lockerbie, 9/11, and other terrorist attacks, so I’m not uncomfortable with having government intelligence agencies spy on people to try to make us safer. A kid from my high school was blown up on Pan Am Flight 103. My office was right next to the World Trade centre, and I knew people who were murdered on 9/11. So these attacks hit close to home. I am happy that similar attacks have happened infrequently. And I am willing to give up a bit of my privacy if it will help the government continue to prevent such attacks.
  • I know people who have worked or do work in our government, and they’re not power-hungry or evil. They’re not even incompetent. On the contrary, they’re professionals who could work anywhere but have chosen to spend some of their careers working in the government. I’m sure that, like all professionals, these folks occasionally make mistakes, but I have no doubt that they’re trying to do the best job they can for the country and Americans. And, in part because I know these people, I imagine that most people in the government are trying to do the same thing.
  • I appreciate that there is an important difference between being able to collect information about me and being able to use that information against me.  Yes, our government appears to be building a humongous database filled with all of our communications, along with those of everyone else in the world. And, yes, the power of such a database is potentially immense and could be used against me.  But there’s a big difference between collecting that information and using it. And that’s a difference that the folks who are outraged by the NSA revelations often seem to ignore.

On this last point–the difference between collecting and using–let me clearly acknowledge that a bad actor could always use the information the NSA has collected in an illegal or improper way. But that is true with other public and private sector employees, too, many of whom also have access to vast troves of private personal information.

Let me also acknowledge that, because the determinations about what is “legal” and “illegal” with respect to NSA data usage are made by a secret court, it’s certainly possible that the NSA is going too far.

That second possibility is why I would like to see the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court eliminated and all of the NSA data collection and usage governed by the regular U.S. system. The regular U.S. legal system, after all, already allows government agencies (FBI, CIA, police, etc.) to secretly “spy” on Americans and non-Americans, as long as they have a warrant, and most of us agree that allowing these agencies to do this is in most people’s interests. (If most people didn’t agree with this, the laws would be changed.) U.S. courts would probably approve most reasonable NSA data collection, analysis, and usage, so having this added check and balance would not likely gut the effectiveness of the country’s national security program. 

But even with the FISA court, there is a big different between collecting data and using the data, let alone misusing it. And, at least as far as I know, even privacy advocates are not claiming that the data the NSA has collected has been misused in a way that has actually hurt innocent Americans.

Again, I understand why all this data collection makes people uneasy. And I think the program should be more transparent than it is and governed by the normal U.S. legal system.

But just because the government is collecting and storing “trillions” of communications doesn’t mean the government is using this information in a way that most Americans would find frightening or objectionable.

And that distinction is important.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.