The age of the Internet


For a decade or longer — and certainly since 9/11 — I have assumed that one or another agency of the federal government has been burrowing into my computer, seeing what I’m up to.

Innumerable days, in the pursuit of my trade and within the span of a half-hour, I have entered the following terms into my Internet search engine: al-Qaeda, White House, Obama, U.S. Capitol, Pakistan, Afghanistan, explosives, Taliban — you get the idea. Having just put those words into this one column, and in a single sentence in only the second paragraph, the cyber-sentinels already are frowning. By the time I hit “Send” and it reaches your newspaper perhaps they’ll have concluded I’m harmless — “Just that news guy in Arkansas,” or “Him again.” And then go for coffee.

On the other hand they could decide my scribbling is more serious, maybe a coded message, and decide a closer look is indicated. So agents of one or another federal bureau will interview my neighbors, slip in the back door of the local post office branch and monitor my mail, scan yet again my phone records or take a closer look at my credit card statements. (If they don’t have the account numbers it’s because they haven’t bothered to call them up on their own terminals; surely they have immediate access).

I would like to flatter myself that the Chinese, too, are in my computer, and for all I know they’re in there now, searching for the secret of my success. (Which means they won’t be in there very long). But it is not unimaginable. I was only mildly surprised to learn that the computer systems of Arkansas’s universities are under more or less constant siege from distant hackers, government and corporate. Attempts to break into UALR’s network have been traced to Romania. All that high-tech research underway at the Nanotechnology Center — tempting.

So count me among those who are less than stunned that the U.S. government may be surveying my e-mails, my Web destinations, my downloads, whatever. The national security establishment that has expanded ever exponentially since the Twin Towers fell. It now is a bureaucratic colossus that now employs tens of thousands of highly trained geeks huddled over terminals in hundreds of thousands of square feet of climate-controlled hum, with gazillions of megabytes of RAM and memory and search capacity, and all those other computer functions at their fingertips — what did we think they were doing? Put yourself in the place of a mid-level researcher whose job is to prevent another New York, another Boston, another London, another Tokyo; and then consider that his or her failure to flag any sinister e-mails likely could be traced back to his watch, his computer — and you’re telling me you won’t peek?

A cousin by marriage in Conway County — when he returned to Arkansas years ago after a career in the military, I was told to not bother asking what he did in all that time abroad. “He’s not allowed to say anything,” my old man told me. This much we knew: that he had been based in Germany, on the edge of the former Soviet Bloc, and that upon separation he was not allowed to return to Europe for a specified period of years without government approval. Since he was not in a combat arms branch it was natural enough to believe he was involved in American intelligence activity. Those were pre-Internet days, and if the stakes were just as high for our nation and the world, I suspect his worries were analog, not digital. Our enemies had fewer phones, too, none of them portable.

That a geeky-looking 20-something, smarter than wise, has a Top Secret clearance — no surprise there, either, let alone that he would take it upon himself to save the country from itself. When the intelligence imperative and the budget stalemate has subcontractors of subcontractors supervising access to the family jewels, who would a missing laptop? The number of individuals with the (purported) highest level of access is now said to number in the tens of thousands. The number empowered to classify documents was already in excess of that.

Floyd Abrams, one of the great First Amendment attorneys of any age, remarked not long ago that the presumption of privacy in the age of the Internet, an era when satellites not only can detect activity in a house from miles overhead but distinguish between heat in the kitchen and heat in the bedroom, was absurd. Not that he was happy about it, or that we should be — it was simply so.

I remember how happy my family was, in the Pine Bluff of the 1950s, when the phone company finally eliminated party lines. For the young, that was a hardwire phone line serving as many as eight households. A half-century later, we all have a party line.

MEMO TO THOSE SPOOKS IN MY COMPUTER, U.S. OR CHINESE: By “party line,” I don’t mean…

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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and host of Arkansas Week on AETN.