Civically Engaging with Alex Zank

Story by Alex Zank, Op/Ed Editor

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For those of you that are somehow completely unaware of the National Security Agency’s monitoring efforts and the whole national debate on privacy thing: starting last June, defense contractor Edward Snowden leaked startling information to news outlets.

This leak revealed the NSA was gathering phone metadata of U.S. citizens. The intelligence community claims the ability to gather this information in an encompassing fashion helps safeguard the country from another attack on our shores.

As time went on, more NSA spying and monitoring activities were reported, including the tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. And even more recently it was revealed that the NSA was gathering user information from Angry Birds, a video game wildly popular on smartphones and tablets.

I’m not, however, going to devote this week’s column railing against the NSA’s practices and questioning its Constitutionality. What I will address is why you should care the agency is doing this. This starts with the large portion of the population that actually supports the NSA snooping.

Shortly after the news broke last year, the Pew Research Center asked respondents to a poll whether they thought the monitoring was acceptable. An astounding 56 percent of people actually approved of the practice, with 41 percent saying it wasn’t acceptable. Of course, nine months later, with more news stories and troubling information revealed to the public, these polling numbers have changed.

The USA Today reported on Jan. 20 that a majority, 53 percent, now disapprove, with 40 percent still in support.

Let’s not get hung up on respondents to these Pew Polls, especially considering that usually the vast majority of people taking the time to answer these polls are not in our age group. What I’m worried about is the contradictory nature in which we young people are behaving regarding the topic.

A story by NPR best explains my concerns. It reported a poll revealed young Americans, ages 18-29, place a higher priority on privacy than any other age group. Forty five percent said it’s more important that the government not intrude on our privacy even if it limits its ability to protect us from terrorism, which is at least ten percent higher than any other age group.

At the same time, an astounding 12 percent of young respondents say they are following news on the NSA spying.

Is it that we don’t care? I don’t think that’s the case. A Harvard poll focusing on young people shows that when you put a personal touch on the issue of government spying, the young begin to take notice. The research group asked what personal information is okay for the government to collect, 55 percent said none. And when they added the words “from you” to the question, 61 percent said they wouldn’t want any kind of information collected.

So, why does an alarming minority of young people not seem to care enough to pay attention when an invasion of their privacy is actually happening? Is it because we actually don’t care about our privacy? (Think about how many people post – even the most trivial things to Facebook, such as, “I went to the gym today!”) Or is it that young people want to tune out at the slightest hint of politically-related news?

If you can think back to the first installment to my column, which is only two weeks ago, you should remember that I tried to make a connection with all kinds of things in our young lives to politics.

Well, this is another one, and a serious connection at that.

If we really are disturbed about a government agency being able to secretly access all kinds of personal information about us, why don’t we act like we are? This is what baffles me about so many of us and our disconnect to politics. It is one thing to actually not care about something like politics, which is sad, but what is even sadder is to actually have a stake in a political issue, such as your privacy, and be blissfully ignorant about it.

Politics isn’t something that just affects people who are paying attention over there, in Washington D.C. or in Madison. It’s something that affects everyone no matter where they live or what they do.

If you care about your privacy, then you should care about politics and government. If you don’t care about your privacy, I would suggest you post your web browsing history on the doors of the W.R. Davies Center and see how uncomfortable it makes you feel (yep, the NSA is monitoring that, too).

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