Our right to privacy has been going horribly wrong for a long time

June 10, 2013

So the government has been tracking every single Verizon phone call for seven years. That explains how Michelle Obama got her mitts on my secret bread pudding recipe.

Actually that’s not completely true. I don’t even have Verizon. I have the cellphone carrier that works everywhere in the entire world except for your own house. But I don’t like to talk to anyone in the first place, so it’s not an issue.

Nevertheless, the president and Congress were scrambling over the weekend to put a smiley face on the news that the National Security Agency has engaged in a secret surveillance program that has collected the telephone records of tens of millions of Verizon customers.

Beyond that, we learned that the NSA has been tapping the servers of nine top Internet companies to rifle through all sorts of private-user web data.

So who do the NSA folks think they are, the Chinese?

Maybe that’s why we haven’t heard more outrage from the government about Chinese hackers. Thunderous indignation falls a bit flat when you’re doing the same thing yourself.

So, just to make sure I’m clear on this — you’re telling me there’s no privacy on the web? Who knew? I’m sure Gen. David Petraeus is at this moment slapping himself on the forehead and saying, “NOW you tell me.”

Really, just because every 14-year-old spammer in the Ukraine has access to your email address doesn’t mean our private information has been compromised.

The media indignation is interesting. The government is tracking web activity? Horrors! Forget for the moment that every media outlet in the nation tracks your web activity. How do you think the New York Times knows when you’re nearing the end of your 10 free stories a month?

Really, every corporation on Earth tracks your web activity. For privacy, Facebook makes the NSA look like the Vermont Country Store. And Amazon? They don’t track private information. It’s just pure coincidence that they know you might be interested in the latest Khaled Hosseine novel and a new Zebco fishing reel.

And remember, who developed the Web in the first place (along with Al Gore)? That’s right, the military. The military. Hello. Collecting intelligence for them is pretty much the name of the game. You don’t expect the military to say: “Oh, so sorry. Didn’t mean to listen in, just because we have a key to the front door.”

It’s been 15 years (years!) since Sun Microsystems founder Scott McNealy said of the Internet: “You have zero privacy anyway; get over it.”

That goes for anything electronic, and has been true since Sarah the switchboard operator listened in on Andy Griffith’s telephone conversations. It’s just too easy. You can’t blame the government any more than you can blame a pig for taking a bite if someone puts a pumpkin in front of his snout.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped the government from being outraged at disclosures of its clandestine activities. The NSA called the news stories “reprehensible.” So to recap, government snooping into the affairs of private citizens is cool. Private citizens snooping into the affairs of government is reprehensible. Got it.

But for anyone who is still offended, feel free to visit our archives and read the estimated seven metric tons of material I wrote a decade ago warning about the Patriot Act, upon which this intrusion of privacy is largely based. Back then, everyone just rolled his eyes and said: “There he goes again.” In fact, all I got for my trouble was a strange clicking sound every time I picked up the phone. Lesson learned.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or via email at

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