It is strangely fitting that President Bush’s no-warrant wiretapping came to light during the season of holiday gift buying, much of which took place online.
As Washington huffed and puffed over a new erosion of privacy, untold millions of us clicked just as fast as our little clickers could click through Google ads and Amazon checkout pages, unwittingly updating our “cookie” ID badges at every new screen. We bought our loved ones cellphones with built-in Global Positioning System and flocked to family gatherings in cars loaded with OnStar and EZ Pass. We paid for mostly everything with credit and debit cards. Out of convenience, we embraced technologies meant to track our every move.
There are important distinctions, of course, between government prying and the emerging web of consumer surveillance. But they share a digital universe that facilitates and rewards watching. Spam, spyware and identity theft are only a taste of how exposed we have all willingly become as we enjoy the benefits of the networked world.
If the American public seems a bit confused about the raging debate of security versus civil liberties – Bush/Cheney versus the A.C.L.U. – it may be because the debate itself has been outpaced by technology. In our post-9/11, protowireless world, democracies and free markets are increasingly saturated with prying eyes from governments, corporations and neighbors. For better and worse, free societies are fast entering the world of total surveillance.