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Downtown View: Surprised About Spying?

One of life’s pleasures is watching people get worked up into a lather.

This time it is about government spying. The National Security Administration is mining telephone calls and Internet action to see if you are planning to blow something up.

Congress people, senators and commentators are shocked, shocked that this is going on. You think we believe they didn’t know?

They could have paid attention in 1983 when the Police sang, “Every step you take, I’ll be watching you.” Sting warned us even before we had the Internet.

Since Apple, Microsoft and Google took over the world, it has been obvious they know what you’re doing and so does everyone else. Your phone identifies your location. Facebook or similar sites encourage you to tell all. Google knows what you buy and the web sites you visit. Address sites reveal your address, age and also your relatives. Linked-in knows your friends. There are DNA databases and iris recognition software. You can’t hide unless you check out of the world.

And all that thrashing about from our allies that we might be spying on them? Hypocrisy. Don’t you suspect that the Russians, the Chinese, and the Iranians—maybe even our buddies the Brits, those masters of spying, who are wagging their fingers right now at the U.S.—are listening in on us regular Americans too? (I wonder what they’ll think when they find I’m sending a friend a recipe for a suspicious Moroccan lamb tagine?)

It’s more than governments. Your credit card company knows where you’ve spent money and on what. Your insurance company could theoretically track policy holders on Facebook to find out if they have any health problems that might cause the company to cancel a policy.

Congressman Michael Capuano has introduced a bill that would keep your television from watching you. He’s too late. About five years ago I called Comcast to ask how to work something I didn’t understand. The nice woman who answered the phone recited the programs I had been watching.

The most curious case of spying I’ve read about recently has been over potatoes. Reportedly, the United Potato Growers Association used “satellite imagery, fly-overs, GPS systems and other methods,” to ensure their members planted the allotted number of potatoes in their fields so an excess of potatoes wouldn’t flood the market and depress prices.

If potato growers are spying, everyone else must be doing it too.

Now before you get lathered up about my lack of concern, I’ll assure you I understand the problem. You have only to read a biography of Robert Oppenheimer to see how Hoover and his henchman destroyed the life of one of World War II’s most valued scientists by snooping.

One also can point to the McCarthy era to imagine how compromised some of his intended targets might have been had their youthful exuberances been subject to phone trolling and email gathering.

One also can imagine there are McCarthy-types out there—a few names come to mind—who’d spy on us without a shred of concern.

This is messy business all around. Respectable opinion leaders point out different aspects of the problem.

James Carroll in the Globe described a massive, uncontrollable bureaucracy in which data collection was banal and exposure almost certain due to its size.

The New York Times’s Gail Collins, not her usual funny self, wondered where Obama’s constitutional law expertise had gone. David Brooks and Thomas Friedman cautioned that government data mining might not be as bad as events that would take place if it were not going on.

In the 1980s it was revealed that the CIA had done some unsavory things. Many people said they were surprised and repulsed by this secret, edge-of-the-law world, even though they were reading John le Carré’s thrillers as fast as he could turn them out.

I doubt if anyone wants a world in which the U.S. is not spying even on us, since other countries are doing so. Moreover, we understand that the same technology that makes us vulnerable is also the technology we demand.

It’s a muddle. So far no one has spelled out a good, tight idea about how to go forward.

A beginning may lie in Whitey’s trial.

We want government agencies to spy, troll, and listen in on conversations that could hurt us. Yet there must be watchers keeping close tabs on those doing the spying, because like Whitey’s FBI contacts, they can go bad. Watching the watchers is sure to have pitfalls too.

Moreover, we want controls on the credit card companies and other commercial enterprises that we take advantage of, yet we don’t want them taking advantage of us.

This is still not the tight way forward we need. But I’m not going to get in a hyberbolic lather about it. We’ll work it out—imperfectly—but we will. And we’ll be on to the next sensation.

 Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at