Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

-Bill Murray, Ghostbusters

Well maybe PRISM hasn’t produced human sacrifice, and certainly there’s hysteria but not of the mass kind, but we sure are seeing a lot of dogs siding up to cats. The Wall Street Journal gives the President an attaboy while the NYT sees him channeling his inner Bush. Libertarians and Progressives are furious while center right and center left politicians assure us there is nothing to see here and it’s time to move along. From such divergence no scandal ever arises. This is a DOA issue that will consume the talk shows, newspapers and the blogosphere … for the weekend.

We’ve simply learned over the past few days that the government is spying on us which is something we suspected anyway. Perhaps we didn’t think the scope was quite so broad but that’s a failure of imagination at best or more likely wishful thinking. We have been willing to cede privacy as a necessary trade-off for security. The question now is when faced with the facts that the cost of security is much less privacy than we thought we had bargained for is the price still acceptable. Given the array of belief among various members of the press and government it seems unlikely that the public won’t be persuaded that they have been overly compromised.

That’s not the end of the story. What can we expect of a government which has been given a pass on spying to this extent? Megan McArdle had this thought.

My greatest fear is not that this surveillance will turn out to be more widespread.  My greatest fear is that we will find out they are spying on us, and the American public will yawn. And in some secret room, bureaucrats and politicians will note that the American public does not care, and turn to discussing how much more spying they can get away with.

You can see that we disagree. She is concerned that we will find out they are spying on us and not care. I believe we knew it, just not the extent to which it had gone, that we had given tacit permission already and that these new facts will not cause us to restrain government. We do agree that having pushed the envelope this far, they are likely to continue to expand their operations.

Tyler Cowen has thoughts along a similar line.

Perhaps we had a regime of creative ambiguity when it came to privacy and government surveillance.  You (or at least I) thought the government was spying on you, but there was some ambiguity as to how much.  You could acquiesce to the previous status quo, without fearing it would get worse, because it was not commonly recognized public knowledge that so much spying was going on.  Maybe you figured you could tolerate a 0.8 probability of that level of spying because there were checks on it becoming worse, more extensive, more selective, and so on.

But now that previous level of spying is common knowledge (or at least part of it is common knowledge, I suspect there are further revelations to come).  At the same time, the IRS, Verizon, and other scandals are common knowledge too, all of a sudden.

The old equilibrium is perhaps no longer stable.  People may even be fine with that level of spying, if they think it means fewer successful terror attacks.  But if they acquiesce to the previous level of spying too openly, the level of spying on them will get worse.  Which they do not want.

On top of all that, the common knowledge of the old spying also may make the old spying less effective in purely practical terms, as potential suspects adjust their behavior.  That also may lead a risk-averse government to pursue additional and more intrusive means of spying.

So if the status quo of a few weeks ago is no longer an equilibrium, what happens next?

I predict we will see more spying and more intrusive spying.  You should not think that recent events will simply cement a previous status quo in place, rather it moves us down a very particular path and probably makes the entire problem worse.  The age of creative ambiguity in surveillance is over and probably not for the better.

Government spying may keep the barbarians at bay. Can we be confident that the data will forever more rest in the NSA’s computers and be used for no other purpose? In other words can we trust Government?


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