Discussing Surveillance with the Kids:  What If It’s Not McGee?

My biggest job as a father is to help raise the kids to take their place as moral and productive adults in society, not necessarily a simple job in today’s America.  Doing that requires, amongst many other things, an awareness of the issues that face Americans with an emphasis on those that will particularly affect them as they proceed along in life.  One of the issues that most concerns me for the kids is that of the presence of government surveillance, particularly the pervasive electronic programs fostered by the NSA. 

The issue is troubling for many reasons but there are two points that particularly bother me in regards to the kids.  The first is that they are so massively tied in to the ether via the internet and increasingly through the newly termed “Sensornet”, the increasing number of interconnected devices.  An entity with the resources – and boy howdy, the NSA has those in terabytes – can carefully craft together an accurate picture of an individual’s beliefs, likes, dislikes and opinions for the highest bidder; in the aspect of a free society, it can also be used to apply pressure to silence an uncomfortable opinion.  The second point is that the news-media is largely now controlled by no more than a half-dozen corporate entities and with the rise of corporate fascism within the past two decades or so, there are fewer and fewer places for these youngsters to go for truly independent news.  While it’s impossible to eliminate full bias from any news source, there are now far greater and lucrative reasons to assert control over the news flow and corporations are generally not run by people who are willing to place their companies and paychecks at risk.  The rise of the terrorist threat – whether it’s that everpresent or just another straw bogeyman to be conveniently exploited – means that there’s a plethora of opportunities for the media to push a specific message, which is about the need for security and increasing vigilance that begins to conflict with our most core freedoms.

So if it’s my job to prepare the kids and make them aware, I have to look for any opportunity to create a teachable moment.  Such was the moment some months ago after we spent a Tuesday evening watching NCIS.  It was another of those episodes in which Gibbs’ team is against the wall trying to defuse a potential terrorist plot and McGee realizes that he can surreptiously crack some firewalls and obtain crucial data that makes the plot stoppable.  There’s the nod to legal process with the warning that this could be a problem without warrant, but Gibbs and/or Vance will quietly nod and then make a cryptic remark that is in itself an approval of the measure.  My full disclosure is that I like NCIS and have watched it for years, developing an affection for the characters, most particularly the wiseass DiNozzo.  But after that episode, I engaged Youngest in a conversation after he’d gone online at the family computer. 

The brief talk – and it can’t take huge amounts of time – centered on what the team did to crack the case.  Here’s my problem with it, I said.  Did they crack the case?  Youngest responded that they had, to which I asked what if that wasn’t McGee at the terminal?  What if that was someone else, someone that you didn’t necessarily know and trust?  Would that make what they did the right thing to do? Youngest – now in seventh grade – has had enough conversations to understand the notion of legal process and could see that the process had been upended in the interest of public safety.  But my subsequent conversation with him went to the need for the process in the first place.  I pointed out the recent issues with the IRS, specifically in regards to using it as a political tool against libertarians and conservatives, as well as the Obama Administration’s vicious war against whistleblowers, who often were moral people who were trying to shed light on abuses within the system and not incompetents or malcontents.  It might seem heady stuff for a middle-schooler, but the reality is that the kids are generally capable of understanding topics if you’ve raised them to “play up” in conversations and have tried to make them as understandable and matter-of-fact as possible.  There have been times with my own kids when they’ve asked questions on the spur and I’ve told them that I’ll come back to them after having a chance to think about it.  It isn’t that I don’t know the facts or have an opinion on it, but that I need a little time to think through how to present an answer that’s understandable for the age level; that said, there have been a few instances where I’ve gone back to fact-check myself so I don’t come off sounding like a moron (not a hard thing to do sometimes).  One or two days later, I’ve come back with Remember that question you had about…?

The point to the conversation was to at least give Youngest a glimpse into the issue of government surveillance, that there was more there than just a friendly fictional scout-leading character on a popular television show who could be upending the process.  It was also to give him a sense that the legal processes are there for solid reasons and that the technology can be a double-edged sword, to protect the common person from the vagaries and senses of the poltical operatives and hacks that populate the upper levels of the various bureaucracies, willing and able to abuse the system for the ends of themselves or the hands that feed them. 

There have been other situations that have arisen since then that have led to further conversations on the question of privacy and surveillance and both my wife and I have pointed them out to one or more of the kids as they’ve been around.  The point is to make yourself aware of the issues in our society and whenever possible, find a way to present them to the kids so that they have a grounding as they grow.  These are the years that will allow them to begin developing the habits that protect them when they’re finally adults and my expectation is that America is going to have a moment of truth about how far the security apparatus should go in the pursuit of security.

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