Why Are People More Scared of Facebook Violating Their Privacy than Washington?

Why doesn't domestic surveillance stir more outrage?


This morning, Matt Welch took note of the Senate's bipartisan effort to stop amendments to the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 that would make the domestic surveillance program more transparent and require compliance with the Fourth Amendment.  (To follow up on Welch's notes this morning, Sen. Ron Wyden's amendment was indeed defeated and the act was reauthorized unchanged in a 73-23 vote.)

The traditional media response to the reauthorization battle has been remarkably nonexistent. As I was managing my shift updating Reason 24/7 yesterday afternoon I was learning the outcomes of the votes not from the Associated Press or anything that popped up on my Google newsfeed, but from tweets from the likes of Adam Serwer of Mother Jones or Julian Sanchez of Cato.

There's currently nothing on the New York Times web site about the votes (either yesterday's or today's). The Associated Press wrote a story about the House's vote in September but nothing yet from yesterday or today. The Washington Post did post a story this morning. A Google news search will land hits with mostly tech or web-based media outlets. (Update: Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press e-mailed me to let me know they had indeed published some stories prior to the vote. I was unable to find them yesterday but have no reason to doubt him. Their report on the final vote is here.)

Compare the lack of response to the way people react to privacy breaches connected to Facebook or Twitter. Media outlet after media outlet carried reports about a private picture of Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's sister, accidentally being made public somehow through social media channels. And how many of your Facebook friends posted that silly, pointless "privacy notice" on their walls?

The easy response is to blame the media for not keeping the public informed. And while Congress' and the Obama Administration's palpable disdain for both the Fourth and Fifth Amendments should horrify all Americans, it should be fairly clear by now that maybe it doesn't for large swaths of people. Media outlets are responding to their respective markets. Those who are covering FISA are doing so because their readers have expressed an interest.

The degradation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments is an academic or theoretical matter for so many people and often lacks a strong human narrative to draw public outrage. Indeed, the very secrecy behind the application of federal domestic wiretapping has made it impossible to introduce a human narrative. We do not even know how many Americans have been spied on due to these rules (which was what Wyden's amendment was trying to fix). Like our foreign drone strikes and indefinite detention laws, the public's distance from the actual rights violations (and government-fueled fears of acts of terrorism) is a useful barrier for the state to get away with expanding its authority beyond the Constitution's limitations without significant voter pushback.

Whereas, just about everybody's on Facebook. Facebook's privacy systems affect them directly every day, and they see it. So Americans are furious that Instagram might sell their photos, while shrugging at what the federal government might do with the exact same data.

This grasp of managing outrage is what makes our government's lack of transparency so insidious. Even though the government has admitted that it has violated the Fourth Amendment at least once in its warrantless wiretapping, the outrage is limited to privacy and civil liberties circles precisely because the secrecy keeps the public from even knowing what these violations actually mean.

Reason Associate Editor Mike Riggs thoroughly documented the Obama Administration's failure to live up to his promise to make the federal government more transparent in our December issue. Read it here.