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The Spying Game
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PRINCETON, N.J.--Thanks to Edward Snowden, I now know that the U.S. National Security Agency is spying on me.
I am not a United States citizen, so it's all perfectly legal. And, even if I were a U.S. citizen, it is possible that a lot of information about me would have been swept up anyway, though it may not have been the direct target of the surveillance operation.
Should I be outraged at this intrusion on my privacy? Has the world of George Orwell's "1984" finally arrived, three decades late? Is Big Brother watching me?
I don't feel outraged. Based on what I know so far, I don't really care. No one is likely to be reading my emails or listening in on my Skype calls. The volume of digital information that the NSA gathers would make that an impossible task.
Instead, computer programs mine the data for patterns of suspicious activity that intelligence analysts hope will lead them to terrorists. The process is not all that different from the data collection and analysis that many corporations use to target their ads at us more effectively, or that give us the online search results that we are most likely to want.
The question is not what information a government, or business, gathers, but what they do with it. I would be outraged if there were evidence that--for example--the U.S. government was using the private information that it scoops up to blackmail foreign politicians into serving U.S. interests, or if such information were leaked to newspapers in an effort to smear critics of U.S. policies. That would be a real scandal.
If, however, nothing of that sort has happened, and if there are effective safeguards in place to ensure that it does not happen, then the remaining question is whether this huge data-gathering effort really does protect us against terrorism, and whether we are getting value for money from it. The NSA claims that communications surveillance has prevented more than 50 terrorist attacks since 2001. I don't know how to evaluate that claim, or whether we could have prevented those attacks in other ways.
SPYING GAME: WHY THE OUTRAGE OVER INVASION OF PRIVACY?
Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include "Practical Ethics, One World, and The Life You Can Save." © Project Syndicate, 2013