One diverting aspect of the hullaballoo over NSA surveillance has been watching people bicker about it on Facebook. In the old Soviet Union, people walked in the woods or hid in the bathroom with the faucets running to whisper forbidden thoughts. Here in the USA, people post them online along with cute kitten videos.
Recently, I advised my Facebook friend Theo Jordan how to conduct an intrigue without government spooks catching on. Have a third party buy a prepaid cellphone anonymously, use it no more than twice, and then hide it in the backseat of a New York taxi. The Feds will go nuts.
Privacy in the 18th-century sense vanished with the Internet, and it's never coming back. It's childish to think otherwise.
Here's the thing: The good news is the most dramatic "revelations" in the Snowden-Greenwald stories turn out, upon further review, to be somewhere between greatly exaggerated and entirely false.
Yes, NSA vacuums up telephone “metadata” and sifts it for suspicious patterns. USA Today revealed that in 2006. There was a big political fight about it, which the libertarian side lost. But no, they aren't listening to your calls, and when the histrionic Mr. Snowden says he could have eavesdropped on anybody in the USA, he leaves out that doing so would have landed him in federal prison, where he probably belongs.
As the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin asks "What, one wonders, did Snowden think the NSA did? Any marginally attentive citizen, much less NSA employee or contractor, knows the entire mission of the agency is to intercept electronic communications."
The New York Times' estimable James Risen was absolutely correct on "Meet the Press" when he said, "We haven't had a full national debate about the creation of a massive surveillance state and surveillance infrastructure that if we had some radical change in our politics could lead to a police state."
However, the genie won't fit back in the bottle. Like nuclear weapons, computer technology is here to stay. What with al-Qaida posting articles on its website teaching freelance jihadists like the Tsarnaev brothers to "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom," and Chinese hackers stealing industrial and military secrets, unilateral electronic disarmament would be folly. An unmonitored Internet would be a conspiracist's playground.
So let's definitely have that debate. Always mindful, however, of two things: First, the great enemy isn't methodology but lawlessness. When J. Edgar Hoover targeted Martin Luther King, he used not NSA computers but tape recorders the size of electric typewriters.
Two, cyber warfare beats the other kind hands-down.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.