My first day in college, the professor for Public Policy 101 asked a 200-person class, "If there were a policy that saved over 20,000 lives, reduced carbon emissions by 20 percent, reduced gasoline usage by 20 percent, decreased average insurance costs by 75 percent, and which would increase revenues to the federal government and not cost any additional money to implement -- who in this room would support this policy?" Of course, everyone's hands went up.
The policy solution that he was referring to, he soon revealed, was to cap national speed limits at 40 miles per hour. The room, filled mainly with 18-to-20-year-olds, was horrified at the prospect of never being able to drive their car above 40 mph on the highway. Individual freedom is difficult to quantify in public-policy analysis until its real costs are clear, but it has to be part of the conversation.
The government's policies in the NSA's PRISM program reflect perhaps the perfect storm of public-policy conundrums. This surveillance seems to offer short-term advantages, with the real costs hidden, diffuse, unknown, and, seemingly, far in the future. What, many ask, is the real price of giving up privacy? The government has presented PRISM, and other similar surveillance programs, as a solution to a danger and fear -- terrorism -- which is almost impossible to comprehend: Terrorism is everywhere and nowhere; the battlefield is across the globe; the threat is omnipresent. It is difficult for the average person to perceive and understand until it is splashed across television screens. Terrorism is by definition designed to "shock and awe." It is theatre of the macabre.
The government has used this fear to justify unprecedented intrusions into our privacy, including monitoring who we call, our location data, and allegedly even the contents of our communication (if there is a 51 percent chance that one party to the communication is foreign). Our personal calling data, emails,letters, credit-card transaction data -- everything seems fair game. The fact that the NSA wants this much information shouldn't be surprising. The old maxim that to a hammer every problem looks like a nail is appropriate here. A spy agency specializing in "signals" intelligence is always looking for more phone calls, emails, and other signals-based data to analyze. The more data NSA receives, the more powerful it becomes.