The End of Benign Ignorance
“Hi, NSA? This is DEA. What? You KNEW we’d be in touch? Oh, riiiight. Yeah. So, ah, anyway, let’s do lunch…”
For a long time our government has had the luxury of not even being able to know about an ocean of petty, often victimless crime. Our laws were born into benign neglect. This was not by choice, but by technological necessity. Knowing everything just wasn’t possible: If some citizen grew a few pot plants, hired a couple of illegals, kept a modest cache of unregistered weapons, or paid — in cash — for sex, probably no one would ever be the wiser. As long as you weren’t a total dumbass about it, you wouldn’t face any legal consequence at all.
Like the fish in the water, we lacked a term for our happy state of affairs. We clearly need one now, and so I’ll coin it: For many years, our government’s benign ignorance was a limiting factor in the growth of the carceral state. That may be ending. When it does, our law enforcement will look very different.
Benign ignorance permitted the rise of legislation that no one ever expected to see systematically enforced: It’s illegal to grow vegetables in your front yard in Los Angeles. You often can’t legally photograph or video a cop. There are some very easily violated laws about the mails — images of which, yes, they’re scanning now. Do magic mushrooms grow wild on your land, as sometimes happens in, like, all of North America? Uh-oh. And let’s not even get started about intellectual property rights, which everyone violates absolutely all the time. Under benign ignorance, copyright only catches the really big fish, which is probably just how things should be. But without benign ignorance? Somebody better tell aunt Francine. (“And tell her in person, you dolt! Do not call her on the phone!”)
As we all know now, the NSA has our telephone and Internet metadata. They appear to be able to get our browsing and search history as well as our passwords. They very likely have mobile phone location data. Did you turn your phone off? It doesn’t matter. And we’ve just learned that they can also read encrypted VPNs.
That means the NSA knows. They know about your bitcoins. They know about your porn. They know about your guns. They know about your drug dealer. And they know about Ashley Madison. Or Grindr. Or Bang With Friends. Or whatever it is you depraved sickos get into these days. They also know about the illegal stuff, of which the less said the better.
It’s only natural that other government agencies are going to want what the NSA now has. If they get it, things are going to change in ways that we can’t even imagine. This story of a police raid after searching for “backpack” and “pressure cooker”? Only the beginning.
Now, readers, the linked is a developing story. It’s not yet clear how things will shake out in this particular case. But whether it’s true, or erroneous, or even just a very clever hoax will hardly matter long-term. Whatever it may be, the story has legs because it’s a vision of a terrible future, one that absolutely nobody wants. And it’s coming straight for us.
As far as I can tell, the only thing standing between us and that is the NSA’s tendency to follow rules — that is, the tendency to follow rules possessed by individuals who have shown absolutely no tendency at all to follow rules. At least not when they’re inconvenient.
Benign ignorance is dead. They’re not ignorant anymore. They haven’t been for a long time. Now we know that they know — and they know that we know that they know.
So what comes next?
It could be very, very bad, depending on our political will, or lack thereof. We might get the only thing worse than losing the drug war, which is actually finally winning the drug war — as in, anyone who uses pays the full, on-paper legal price for their crime. I don’t think anyone ever expected this to happen. We can’t count anymore on benign ignorance to keep people like the young Barack Obama, the young George W. Bush, the young Bill Clinton, and the young [everyone else now in overprivileged Washington] out of prison.
Making a new crime as a mere act of political theater has always had some costs, of course, and I’ve usually thought those costs were too high. Seldom is a law entirely without teeth. But as of today, the teeth bite harder.
Which may turn out to be a very good thing, in some ways: Those in power only pay attention when the laws affect them or the others close to them. They may think twice about future bad laws.
But the end of benign ignorance could also turn out to be a very bad thing. We have no particular reason to expect that the surveillance state will be administered impartially. There might be some neighborhoods, some exclusive Internet services, or some procedures that slip the net. With official approval, of course, subject to revocation by some elite. And those gatekeepers, whoever they are, will hold the real power.