Privacy, Kids and the NSA

Every generation has it’s own fears and concerns for the future and this generation of parents isn’t any different in that regard.  A former pastor with two sons – the oldest of whom is now pushing 40 – once commented that when his wife was pregnant with their first in the mid-1970s, they wondered why they were even going to bring kids into that then-challenged world.  But there are new challenges facing our youngsters with which previous recent generations didn’t have to contend, threats which are almost existential given the youngsters’ electronic habits and tethers.  While I’ve actively talked with the three kids about economics and civics, the ongoing disclosures about the extent of the NSA surveillance apparatus appall me and send a literal shiver through my soul.  What do I teach the kids about this and how do I help them adjust to this new threat?

Because the vast extent of the NSA and intelligence apparatus poses a threat to the heart of a free society.  It is also a dagger that cuts through the heart and soul of this young, online generation.

There are always external threats.  In the first half of the 20th century, we were threatened by fascist dictatorships and after their defeat, the mantle passed with the Cold War’s onset to the communist threat.  The Soviet Bloc’s implosion in the late 20th century came hand-in-hand with the rise of militant Islam; while terrorism has existed for decades, the ability of radical muslims to kill thousands of Americans in a single stroke awakened us to yet another threat.  There is a threat out there…but then again, there’s always a threat out there.

The Presidential Oath requires him – and someday, her – to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  We’ve lost sight that there are also domestic enemies and not all of them wear white hoods or appear in such an obvious fashion.  My wife recently commented that everything seems to be building up and my response was that it’s because we never actually resolve anything.  The budget issues aren’t resolved and we kick the can down the road with continuous spending appropriations and new debt ceilings.  Trillions of dollars are generated to support an aberrant financial community but no restructuring or regulation is performed to assure that there’s no repeat of 2008 (and I live with the belief that it will, and in spades the next time around).  The news cycle simply adapts itself and the old controversies are outshouted by the new and improved controversies with no resolution.  I’ve concluded that the new domestic threats are those who wield the power to circumvent the common good, preventing critical regulatory oversight – remember that one of the legitimate roles of government is to regulate the worser angels of our nature – and pursuing policies that benefit corporations and legal entities but are detrimental to the individual; using money to purchase political access and votes that again, benefit the few and fictitious but are at best, neutral to the individual.  The refusal by the Obama Administration to grant a one-year delay to individuals but instead giving it to corporations is a massive check engine light.  

So we’ve created this pervasive, intrusive intelligence apparatus capable of giving American society a collective electronic colonoscopy.  The oversight has been minimal and as the bureaucrats push forward in their quest for security, those who question it or attempt to shed light on it are legally persecuted in the name of national security; it’s not for nothing that the Obama Administration has reached new heights – or lows, depending on your perspective – in pursuing whistleblowers so that examples are set to discourage others of conscience.  And at the same time, the monied few with the ears and pockets of the political class continue to garner greater influence as they help the career politicians in a mutually beneficial relationship.  At what point does this relationship become the cornerstone of a new fascism, a parasitic collusion of the corporate and political classes?

And I’m respectful of the arguments that support the notion that we’re already there.

So what do I do to help prepare the kids?  This great steaming pile of hot mess goes to the heart of their plugged-in collective consciousness, especially at a time of their lives when they’re unaware both of the consequences of what they say and the reality that this is being recorded en masse and held for whatever moment is best suited for use against them?  The answers are infinitely time-consuming, low-tech and prosaic.

  • Take every opportunity, from the earliest possible moment of their lives, to talk with them.  This sets the stage for the latter days of youth when you want to pull them aside for specific issues; they won’t be looking at you like a geriatric freakshow and you won’t be at an utter loss for words.
  • Take every opportunity to set an example of a non-wired life by putting down your own cell phone and removing your own ear buds.  In the past several months, I’ve noticed more parents – fathers and mothers – walking the kids while plugged into an iPod or cell phone.  The concept of the daily walk is more than just taking the kid outside to blow off the stink; the concept is to fire their synapses as they grow, showing them new things and interacting with them.  They’ll be more understanding of important cell phone calls when they’re older if they don’t see you on the damned things all of the time.  Likewise, when they’re older, they’ll be a bit more understanding if you ask them to remove their own.
  • Raise them as skeptics, not just chatting with them, but challenging them so that they don’t simply accept any party line.  I’ve had a lifelong habit of tossing out outlandish tidbits in conversation to see whether they’ll learn to challenge it as true; this isn’t a harmless exercise and encouraging skepticism can come back to bite when they’re older.  
  • Pull them aside to share news articles with them when they’re old enough.  There have been any number of times when I’ve pulled one or more kids aside to clue them in on something that I believe that they should know.  The occasional response is akin to a tilt of the head reminiscent of Laddie the Wonder Dog, but there also discussions that go places that I didn’t expect.  Inform yourself and then inform them.
  • Set – and live with – ground rules on the electronics.  Don’t be afraid to turn them off and don’t avoid the nastiness that comes with kids not getting their way.
  • Teach them about what’s private and what’s not.  Teach them about family business and also about personal business.  When one of the kids takes family business outside the family, send the child away from the table the next time something sensitive is discussed, even if the other siblings remain at the table.  Then follow it up with a conversation about the excusal and you’ll find it a potent lesson.
  • Take them to a website with old articles or comment threads and show them comments written several years ago to prove that it doesn’t go away.  
  • Keep tabs on their online activity and accounts.  Tell them if they’ve crossed a line and act upon it if necessary.
  • Teach them to NEVER place identifying personal information online, especially a public site with exposure to many.
  • Wake up yourself to the current events around you.  For this issue, follow the Electronic Frontier Foundation and read more of Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian; yeah, it’s an English paper but don’t look for heavy content in most domestic American papers. 

There’s more at stake here than just personal information for our youngsters.  It’s another part of the machine that’s slowly being built around us that can be used for far greater, more insidious control in the future.  I wouldn’t want it for myself and I certainly don’t want it for my children.

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