The Problem with Total Surveillance

20140529-201524-72924452.jpgI was talking with someone a few weeks ago about how the government is snooping on email and social media and all those sorts of things. He mentioned that he finds that most times he bring things like that up, it’s met by the all too common refrain “If you don’t have anything to hide, then what’s the problem?”

Let me tell you what the problem is. Context.

Look, I truthfully don’t have anything to hide. I’m not doing anything illegal, I’m not sleeping around, I’m not hiding money anywhere, I’m not living in fear of the government finding out some deep, dark secret that is going to get me in trouble. What I am afraid of is someone from the government seeing a random email, text message, chat, etc. and taking it out of context. Because then I have to go defend myself from their innuendo.

Let me give you a perfect example. I have a Gmail address. I was lucky enough to get on the gmail train early and I have my name @gmail.com. Unfortunately, I have a pretty common name, and lots of people with that name either forget to type more than just the name @gmail when signing up for things, or go ahead and do that so that they don’t have to deal with the emails. Lots of other folks, when sending email to the Mike they know, manage to only type the name @gmail too. What does that have to do with NSA snooping, you may ask? Plenty. Again, I don’t have anything to hide, but someone with no context about my email address, my personal life, etc. might come to some pretty different conclusions if they were to sample my gmail account on a given day or week. Let me give you some examples. According to the emails I’ve received just in the past couple of weeks:

  • I’m actively seeking employment in Pennsylvania
  • I own rental property in Las Vegas
  • I have wives and children enrolled in schools in NC, VA and Canada.
  • I travel back and forth between San Francisco and New Zealand frequently
  • I frequent some “interesting” dating sites, including at least one that caters to cheating spouses. (Great, thanks to whoever used my email address to sign up for that at the same time my wife is across the country, that doesn’t look odd!!!!)
  • I am paying for cable internet/TV service for a young lady in Michigan. (Student using their stepfather’s payment info maybe?)
  • I shop at some online retailers in England.

Now, none of that is true, and dealing with the mistaken emails is a pain, but ultimately not a big deal to unsubscribe from some of them. (The online dating sites are another story, I have to go to the site to unsubscribe, um no I don’t think I want that in my browser history, thanks! Spam reports here we go!)

What could be a big deal though, is having to explain all of this to someone who is snooping on my email for some reason. What conclusions are they reaching? Are they going to be in my finances trying to find where I am hiding the extra rental income, or investigating me for polygamy, etc.? Are they going to put those email notifications for dating sites together with an innocent, but a little flirty, message I sent a friend and draw some more conclusions? Who knows?

So yeah, I don’t have anything to hide, but I have a whole lot of stuff I’d rather not have to waste time and resources trying to explain to someone from the government. I bet you do too!


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  1. I get some weird ones too – people using my hotmail address for facebook and a dating website, several people use it for their job hunting applications (and they wonder why they don’t get any interviews), school teacher communications are the strangely common ones.

    1. Schools do seem to be a recurring problem. Makes you wonder about how carefully they protect student information when they keep sloppy email records and send out communications to parents that way!

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