Experience #2

// Posted by on 09/21/2014 (9:21 PM)

It’s 6:45 on a Sunday evening, and you are putting off your homework by spending some quality time on Facebook. Scrolling down your newsfeed, you see a post from that kid you sat next to once or twice in econ sophomore year. You’re really interested in wasting some time so you go ahead and click on his page. Just by scrolling through his profile you learn that he now goes to college in the Midwest, belongs to a boy band, and adopted a puppy last year on a whim. Clicking through his pictures you get to “meet” his girlfriend, and by clicking on her profile its easy enough for you get to know her on a pretty basic level. Where she’s from, where she works, where she went to high school, what type of music she listens to, what sorority she belongs to, and her favourite quotes from The Notebook. You have no real connection to either of these people, and yet they have made so much of their personal information public to you- willingly.

As of July 2014, Facebook has over 1.3 billion active users. These 1.3 billion people have, and continue to, voluntarily share pieces of themselves with the world, via Facebook.

For Experience #2, I was assigned the role of the NSA/ USA Government. In class we were told to familiarize ourselves with our character, and to bring something to class that represented our character. I was a little bit nervous to be playing the NSA/USA, as the character played such a central role in the second unit of Digital America.

This was one of the things I brought to class as a representation of the NSA… The seal has been altered from the brave, American bald eagle, to a more sinister looking bird that is listening in on Americans as opposed to protecting them.

Although I had been somewhat expecting a lot of the experience to relate back to my character, I was still surprised and even taken aback when the discussion repeatedly turned towards the NSA. It often felt like the majority (if not all) of the characters at the table at least somewhat disproved of the NSA/USA government and their actions.

Despite the fact that we were all in “character,” this element of the discussion was an interesting surprise for me, as I was the only one at the table in the position to legitimize the NSA and back up its activities. I found this a little bit difficult, as I felt that a lot of the assigned readings had been relatively biased against the NSA/ USA government. For example, an article from The Guardian quotes Edward Snowden as describing the NSA as “the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world…” Later in the article, Snowden then goes on to refer to the government as doing “far more harm than good.” Although these statements are very clearly Snowden’s personal views on the organizations, it was hard not to agree with them and reshape them as my own, as I knew relatively nothing about the NSA before taking this class.

Just like Santa Claus, the NSA is always watching…

That being said, I often wanted to agree with the claims of my classmates instead of fight back on behalf of the NSA/ USA government. My classmates raised issues of privacy and liberty, especially in concern to the “everyday American citizens” who are now subjected to NSA surveillance. “Why does the NSA care about the private details of these peoples’ lives? Do you understand what an invasion of privacy this is?”

Although I initially wanted to agree with my classmates, it was questions like these that really got me thinking. It got me thinking about my Facebook page or my Instagram account, and the sub-cultures that exist throughout both of them. People are constantly making details of their lives quite public, from the pancakes they made for breakfast to the way they voted in the last election. Thinking back to the kid from econ’s girlfriend, it is all too easy to discover things about people, and often without trying.  And the girlfriend would have no way of knowing that you’d been snooping on her, building a person and a personality out of the information on her Facebook page. This idea of creating a personality from different intangible points reminded me of the “personal data trails” (Bamford) discussed by Bamford in his article for Wired. Bamford claims that the NSA is collecting items such as “parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases” (Bamford), in order to construct a person and potentially identify any suspicious habits. Although the NSA goes about creating a person much differently than you do as you look into the girlfriend, the end goals are interestingly similar.

This realization was something I found to be quite interesting, as it made me think about how easily we give ourselves away but yet how horrified we feel when the NSA begins to look for similar information. If you went to Waffle House for breakfast and Instagramed a picture of your waffles, that is perfectly okay, and people will know where and what you ate for breakfast. However, when the NSA puts it on your “paper trail,” you get a feeling that your liberty has been violated. It creates an interesting dichotomy.

Although I understand that the NSA/ USA government’s actions run much deeper than collecting paper trails, and I still cannot say I agree 100% with their surveillance programs, it is not hard for me to admit that experience 2 helped me to view the NSA in a new light, and to begin to try and understand it from different points of view.

Cartoon “weighing the options” between security and liberty.


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