Is “The List” Really a List If Everyone’s On It?

Just within three decades, not only has our society’s means of gathering, sharing, and storing information changed but so has our relationship to information.  Before the internet, people had to search for information by going to places like libraries for books. You need to learn some basic facts about Emperor Penguins? The average height of males compared to females, whether or not they migrate, or how long the incubation period of an egg is — it’s for an assignment and it’s due soon.  Yeah, go get on your bike, head to the library and read a book, kid.  

I was in 5th grade when my family got wireless internet so I only remember going to the public library during the summer and my school library during the school year for the same reasons I go to the library now, to get the books I want to read for fun.  I don’t really have an understanding of what it was like to operate under the limitations of a non-digital world. Every encyclopedia, dictionary, Facebook page, academic papers, and how-to video has been at my fingertips for whenever I want it or need it. The last spelling lesson I had was in third grade.  Consequently, I am looking at the words “aquireing”, “Emporer” and “realationship” underlined in red. Why would I ever take the time to learn to spell the word “nessicarily” even though I when I can just always have that done for me?

The internet has morphed our relationships to information about humans too, not just spelling, definitions, and fun facts.  Facebook reminds me of your birthday, where you are living, and who you’re dating. Even if people aren’t the type to offer that information to the public, with enough digging it’s a no brainer that there’s at least a little information about everyone you’ve ever met, on the web.  By existing in a world with this technology there’s just no such thing as being “off the record” so to speak. People of my generation have grown up knowing that everything we say, do, like, search, visit, in some fashion, is stored forever.  And I think the vast majority of us have accepted it.  

We give this information up to private companies because we don’t have a choice, if we want to use their service. This data people used to call “private information”  and if the private companies were quietly gathering it, let alone the government, then that would violate privacy and civil liberties; the news would’ve caused public hysteria. But there is something about people in positions of digital authority being able to easily get and store information about our “private life” that has shifted us to describe this as the details of our “personal life.”  

The question is, should the goverment be allowed to gather certain types of information about us from us and if they are to have it, what are they allowed to do use it for?  These are the questions that a slew of Supreme Court cases have asked of the justices as the access and use of high-speed internet has taken over our lives. A series of short videos by the Aspen Institute break down a number of cases, the profound opinions, and summaries of opinions from specific justices over time on the topic of National Security, civil liberty, and security.  The two videos I found to be the most fascinating were about Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s opinion on the case of States vs. Jones and the video about “Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Civil Liberties and Privacy.” Both of their past opinions highlight not just how complex this issue is and how quickly these technologies have advanced, but how much more the digital landscape will continue to evolve for the better or worse.  

For me, the most important takeaway from our exploration of national security and modern day digital surveillance is how vitally important our right to petition the government is.  

The court is never going to “caught up” with the times.  Examples of citizens exercising this right is what has led to changes that have protected civil liberties and privacy in the past.  If we want to see any changes surrounding digital surveillance we have to continue to exercise this right. I also believe that how we value this personal information, as a collective, has the power to influence future Supreme Court rulings that could establish more explicitly how the government is allowed to monitor its citizens in this digital age.  We need to take greater stock in what potential power this metadata has or before we know it, we’ll all be on “the list.”

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