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For our own good?

Doubting the merits of domestic surveillance

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Imagine that I knock on your door and offer to sell you something marvelous. Thanks to my inquisitive mind, I have invented a machine that tells you when something bad is about to happen. You wear the machine around your wrist, and it makes a beeping sound when you are in danger.

When you are about to say "Where's Katie?" at a party, and Katie has just succumbed to malignant carcinoma, my incredible machine beeps quietly to save you from the faux pas. When you stand too close to the kooky old valve Katie brought home from Chernobyl, my fantastical device beeps loudly to warn you away.

In today's world of socially competitive cocktail parties and radioactive keepsakes, my amazing danger-sensing machine is indispensable—and darn near perfect. The only catch is, due to quantum entanglement, it also beeps every time your spouse thinks someone else is attractive. Rugged checkout boy? It makes kind of a hum. But you quickly learn to ignore those sounds, since they're not what you want to know about anyway.

So what do you think of my fabulous contraption? If I rapped smartly on your storm window one morning and pitched it to you, would you buy it? If your spouse were standing there with you, would you be more or less likely to say yes? Last question: What if I came to your door and told you that not only had I invented this wonderful machine, but I was so confident you'd like it that I installed one in your basement three weeks ago?

The non-Amish among us experienced a similar sensation last week when we learned that the National Security Agency has been secretly collecting phone, Internet and credit card data from millions of Americans. Almost immediately after whistleblower and not currently locatable person Edward Snowden revealed the top-secret program to the British press, our elected officials assured us that it was not a big deal.

Yes, the NSA has been conducting broad domestic surveillance, but it's for our own good. What's more, it's perfectly legal. A secret court looked at the Patriot Act and ruled that the secret surveillance program is okay, in an airtight work of legal reasoning that is itself a secret. And they're only collecting metadata anyway.

Metadata—that mystic strain of information that tells the people who watch the screens so little about your private life that it's only useful for catching terrorists. Speaking to Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, former Sun Microsystems engineer Susan Landau described metadata as "much more intrusive than content." The same metadata that tell us who's a terrorists can also tell us who's having an affair or going to political meetings or planning a corporate buyout.

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The idea that the government could collect a kind of information that reveals terrorists yet tells it nothing about our private lives is a pleasing fantasy, a pitch from a salesman who has installed the machine already. And that may be the eeriest part—the sense that our elected officials are not trying very hard to sell us on domestic surveillance from the NSA, since they are already doing it regardless.

In Washington, the response to Snowden's revelation has ranged from pique to condolence. President Obama and most of Congress seem annoyed that we even expect an explanation. Seeing as how a government that both knows what we think and does not care is exactly the thing we're trying to avoid, their monolithic apathy is kind of unsettling.

The senators from Montana have been exceptions, and to their credit. Max Baucus sharply criticized the NSA program and voted last year to end the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Jon Tester is a co-sponsor of legislation that would require the FISA court make public its opinions pertaining to the Patriot Act.

"Time and time again, Congress extends the Patriot Act without properly considering the law's impact on Americans' civil liberties." Tester told the Great Falls Tribune. "While we must keep our families safe, I have many questions about the scope of this program and how it affects law-abiding citizens."

Unfortunately, the senators' skepticism toward domestic surveillance puts them in the minority.

Most of Washington seems to either trust the executive branch not to abuse the unprecedented power it secretly gave itself, or trust us not to care. In this context, it's hard to say which is more alarming: that the federal government has built such an elaborate apparatus to surveil the American people, or that it has bet so heavily on our inertia now that we know about it.

It's easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission, my father used to say. Maybe the NSA's wonderful danger-sensing machine had to be a secret in order to work properly. Or maybe we learned about it from a disappearing whistleblower because it is not actually so great, and we would never have signed up for it if government had asked. "It's for your own good" is not what you say when you do someone a favor.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, consumer culture and lying at combatblog.net.

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