Here's a thought experiment to consider.
Media giant AT&T has released its first ever transparency report on how often the government requests information about its users.
The most important number in the report is that there were just over 300,000 "U.S. Criminal & Civil Litigation Demands" from all levels of government in 2013. Other stats include the number of "National Security Demands" (2000-2999), "Location Demands" (37,839), and "Emergency Requests" (94,304). The report also says that AT&T denied or challenged 3,756 requests (or about 1% or all requests), giving no or partial information 13,707 times (or about 5% of all requests).
Verizon released a similar transparency report last month, reporting a similar number of data requests from the government (about 320,000).
These new disclosures come months after former NSA contract worker Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was collecting personal information on millions of people around the world.
What are we to make of the numbers? Are they high, or low? To help answer this question, I offer this thought experiment: let's change the method for collecting the data.
The government going to a company to receive digital information might not seem very intrusive. But what if it was reported that the government had searched the homes of hundreds of thousands of Americans, many of whom had committed no crime, taken personal information, and then forced them to be quiet about it? My guess is that it would be seen as a gross, totaliarian breach of privacy.
The only difference between the two scenarios is the method: one is more direct and visible, the other indirect and virtually invisible. But perhaps the fact that the data collection is invisible should make us even more vigilent.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments.
Brantly Milleganis an Assistant Editor for Aleteia. He is also Co-Founder and Co-Editor of Second Nature, Co-Director of the International Institute for the Study of Technology and Christianity, and is working on a M.A. in Theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity. He lives with his wife and children in South St. Paul, MN. His personal website is brantlymillegan.com.