It seems like urban legend, but it’s a matter of history that J. Edgar Hoover – director of the FBI for over five decades – kept secret files on US citizens, and used their contents to keep himself in power.

This history has been the subject of books and movies, is well explored in both Hoover’s biographies and those of the presidents and attorney generals whom he blackmailed. Harry Truman was the first to publicly decry Hoover’s abuse of power, based on scandalous content on over 2,000 people, most of it illegally obtained.

And what’s particularly poignant about that episode in US history is the public reaction. That a public servant could go so very far off the reservation in the abuse of power, that such a bold and openly brazen enterprise could have existed, was in its time an almost unfathomable breach.

Yet today, only a generation later, we take it for granted.

Trading away privacy

It was “The West Wing” that made the point that the debate of our grandparents’ time was the role of government; our parents, civil rights; and our generation is now debating privacy, in the endless sea of the internet and the cell phone. It isn’t turning out to be much of a debate; on the contrary, there seems to be an almost unspoken negotiation in place, a sense that the information we now command, via the internet, is far greater than the information we give up. Yes, there is less privacy, but there is also far more empowerment than the average citizen has ever enjoyed, through free access to information.

That seems like a fair trade, perhaps, to millennials or even Gen X’ers, whose facility with the flow of information enabled throughout their lifetimes may vastly exceed their elders. They understand that information defines their future. The question remains, is the trade-off worth it, and by what reasoning is it in any way necessary?

The magnitude of privacy breach

The horror over what Hoover did a generation ago has certainly dimmed with time, but it could well be because those emotions were focused on an individual – a public figure of dark and dubious reputation to begin with, an easy emotional target to fix upon.

The NSA is another matter. Edward Snowden’s revelation of the agency’s abuses of power, systematic illegal espionage and general disregard of constitutional process inspires controversy and some civil outrage, but somehow we don’t feel as violated. Is it a matter of acclimation to the new digital age, or the facelessness of the enemy?

Whatever the reason, it numbs us to the numbers: the NSA’s violation of civilian privacy potentially exceeds Hoover’s by at least five orders of magnitude. Hoover wasn’t interested in you or me; he was interested in presidents and actors and civil rights leaders. The NSA is certainly interested in all of that, but its reach is endless. It extends to all of us.

Where is power like this most effectively leveraged? Exactly where Hoover applied it: self-preservation. It is common these days for Facebook to clog up with posts about how Congress is bought off by special interest lobbyists (who outnumber legislators 25-to-1), but that influence is nothing compared to the Hooveresque threat of a legislator’s most private communications, held hostage by an enterprise who essentially has the same dirt on everyone.

IT and the NSA

If any one solution to this growing problem is in the wind, it hasn’t made itself known. The issue of privacy, and in particular our own government’s casual disregard of it, is front and center; reigning in the powers in question is only now beginning to be seen as something that can’t be done with the stroke of a presidential pen. The implications are disturbing, and it’s not out of line to feel a little paranoid about it.

But the take-home point is this: it is those who really understand the internet, the flow of information, the mechanics of security, the management of information access rights and the growing complexity of social information channels who are able to articulate both the nature and the scope of the threat: and those people are, more than anyone else, the membership of the IT community. Those whose body of professional knowledge and experience include these areas of technical expertise have much to say about what is happening and what could happen. And we should.

We may not have the answers to this very serious problem. But we are able to inform others as to what questions we should all be asking.