The Case for Spying

Jonas Max Ferris
Americans value their privacy more than other rights carved out in the formation of this country — like bearing arms. When corporations (supposedly) infringe on our privacy rights — say with Internet tracking tools that monitor our online behavior — we get mad. But when the government monitors our behavior, we get downright livid.

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While we are a nation of laws, we have an almost nostalgic notion of a fair chase. We're not against speed limits, but we don't like being caught by sinister, high-technology means.

It's fair game for a state trooper to chase a speeder down, but we are less enthusiastic about airplanes with radar — even if it saves lives. In fact, technology could “eradicate” speeding, but we don't want satellites or cameras or GSM chips busting us automatically. Too bad, we'd save hundreds of millions of dollars in police time and save oil, not to mention thousands of lives.

If you speed through a forest, with nobody around, is it really breaking the law?

Crime — notably tax evasion, drug dealing, counterfeiting, prostitution, and hiring illegal immigrants, but possibly even terrorism — could be limited simply by getting rid of cash. We already have dozens of ways to pay for everything that do not require greenbacks. Most everyplace, even a tollbooth, take some form of payment other than cash. Yet we still have currency. Why the appeal? The government can't easily track our cash transactions. It gives us a warm feeling knowing we are free from government observation, even if billions in illegal activity take place because of it.

The government already data mines to bust criminals. Marijuana growers are often busted by screening through power company bills — the three-bedroom ranch house with the $3,000 a month power bill probably didn't leave the leaf blower on all month, but might have enough grow lamps in his basement to run a nursery. Most would say this is acceptable behavior for drug enforcement officials.

Yet, similar behavior with our phone bill data is major privacy concern. We want the government to stop crime — including terrorism — but we want them to play fair. It's too bad. Playing fair is very expensive.

The Defense Department budget is over $400 billion a year, and climbing. Fighting the war in Iraq now costs upwards of $8 billion a month, and climbing.

Other ways to fight terrorism are expensive and can grind the economy to a halt. Baggage screening is expensive and slows commerce, to say nothing of port security. More officers, more troops, more money. We've spent billions since 9/11 sniffing for dangerous packages. We haven't found many.

While we don't know the exact budget (or number of employees) of the National Security Agency (NSA) — the hush-hush intelligence agency at the heart of the current phone tapping hysteria — is probably somewhere in the $10 billion per year range. Peanuts compared to conventional warfare. The NSA budget is part of the much larger Defense Department budget.

Credit card companies think I'm making bogus charges on my card the minute a strange pattern emerges — like buying gas twice in a few minutes. I see ads on the Internet customized to only somebody with my Internet surfing behavior. Coupons appear on my receipts based on what I buy at drugstores. I willingly put a card on my key ring so my supermarket can keep up with my every purchase — a total privacy breach — all for a few minor food discounts. AMEX can probably tell you where I'm going to go on vacation next year, and where I'll eat.

Spying is our most cost effective weapon in the war on terror. I trust the NSA with my tax money more than the Army.

Jonas Max Ferris is a regular contributor on "Cashin' In" (Saturdays at 11:30am ET and Mondays at 5:30am ET) and is co-founder of .