The embers have been smoldering for years, but the coals are now catching fire -- and this time, all the hand-waving and government pontificating in the world is unlikely to tamp down a potential inferno.
Ever since 9/11 and the Bush-era enactment of the PATRIOT Act, now with the complicity of President Obama, the U.S. government appears to have had two classes of adversaries in its sights.
The first is the terrorists and other truly evil forces whose goal indeed is to maim and kill innocents. We applaud appropriate measures to root out such evil and bring it to justice.
The second target, however, appears to have actually been the American people themselves.
It's difficult to imagine an alternative logical explanation -- even given government's historical proclivity to stamp information TOP SECRET first and ask questions -- well, usually never.
The proof is in the disgusting, absolutely insane amount of government secrecy that has hidden some projects -- as well as even broad data regarding activities that we already know about -- that involve our personal information.
We've been talking about the truths and falsehoods told about some of these projects over the last few days, but the bottom line is that even when there is no possible national security downside to at least permitting the American people to know about the existence of particular programs and/or the broad scope of their activities, the government has arrogantly tried to keep them secret from all but a privileged and largely co-opted few.
An obvious example is the use of FISA national security user data requests (a more appropriate word would be "demands") directed to the major Web services.
The government has steadfastly sought to avoid public knowledge even in general terms of the true numbers of such requests -- which the receiving firms then vet and either approve or challenge.
There is no rational way that transparency in terms at least aggregate numbers of (for example) FISA requests could possibly do any harm to actual national security efforts.
Only one explanation seems logical. The government is afraid of us -- you and me. They're terrified (no pun intended) that if we even knew the most approximate ranges of how many requests they're making, we would suspect significant abuse of their investigatory powers.
In the absence of even this basic information, conspiracy theories have flourished, which incorrectly assume that the level of data being demanded from Web services is utterly unfettered and even higher than reality -- and the government's intransigence has diverted people's anger inappropriately to those Web services. A tidy state of affairs for the spooks and their political protectors.
Google has now taken a major step toward pushing back on this unacceptable situation.
In a letter sent today to the U.S. Attorney General and FBI Director, Google's chief legal officer, David Drummond, has formally requested that the government give Google (and by extension, other firms) the right to at least include in Transparency Reports aggregate information regarding the number and scope of national security (including FISA) requests and disclosures that Google is required to process.
The letter notes that permission was already granted for some transparency related to National Security Letters (NSLs), with no ill effects.
The government's stance regarding FISA activities feeds the false memes that these Web services have something to hide. They don't, but the government -- in their desperation to keep us all in the dark -- has made it impossible for these firms to demonstrate their innocence.
This must end. Nobody is suggesting that the details of these data demands be arbitrarily made public, only that the broad scope and scale of FISA activity be at least reasonably transparent.
Stop treating Web services -- and the American people -- as your enemies. Stop behaving as if we're no more to be trusted than the terrorists and evil that you (and we) wish to neutralize.
You can take a major step yourself toward demonstrating that you trust and respect the American people, by responding positively to Google's letter and request.
Prove to us that you're actually on the people's side -- not only your own.