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Friday, June 7, 2013

David Simon, Creator of ‘The Wire,’ Debates N.S.A. Surveillance With Readers of His Blog

A scene from “The Wire,” in which police officers intercept a phone call between two suspects in a drug deal.

David Simon, the former reporter behind the television drama “The Wire,” which President Obama calls “one of the greatest shows of all time,” came to the defense of his embattled fan on Friday, suggesting in a long post on his blog that “the national eruption over the rather inevitable and understandable collection of all raw data involving telephonic and internet traffic by Americans,” was misguided.

“Is it just me or does the entire news media â€" as well as all the agitators and self-righteous bloviators on both sides of the aisle â€" not understand even the rudiments of electronic intercepts and the manner in which law enforcement actually uses such intercepts? It would seem so.” Mr. Simon wrote at the start of a 2,500-word post dismissing as “hyperbole,” much of the reaction to this week’s revelations, by The Guardian and The Washington Post, of the vast data collection efforts of the National Security Agency.

His argument hinged on the difference between the government collecting communications data and actually examining it, and he used his experience as a reporter to explain it. “Having labored as a police reporter in the days before the Patriot Act, I can assure all there has always been a stage before the wiretap, a preliminary process involving the capture, retention and analysis of raw data,” Mr. Somin wrote. “It has been so for decades now in this country. The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on which the F.B.I. and N.S.A. are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads from that data. But the legal and moral principles? Same old stuff.”

The argument is nuanced, and Mr. Simon does not deny that there is “the potential for authoritarian overreach,” but he comes down fairly clearly on the side of those who called for the N.S.A. to harness modern information technology more aggressively than it did before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

I know it’s big and scary that the government wants a data base of all phone calls. And it’s scary that they’re paying attention to the internet. And it’s scary that your cell phones have GPS installed. And it’s scary, too, that the little box that lets you go through the short toll lane on I-95 lets someone, somewhere know that you are on the move. Privacy is in decline around the world, largely because technology and big data have matured to the point where it is easy to create a net that monitors many daily interactions. Sometimes the data is valuable for commerce â€" witness those facebook ads for Italian shoes that my wife must endure â€" and sometimes for law enforcement and national security. But be honest, most of us are grudging participants in this dynamic. We want the cell phones. We like the internet. We don’t want to sit in the slow lane at the Harbor Tunnel toll plaza.

The question is not should the resulting data exist. It does. And it forever will, to a greater and greater extent. And therefore, the present-day question can’t seriously be this: Should law enforcement in the legitimate pursuit of criminal activity pretend that such data does not exist. The question is more fundamental: Is government accessing the data for the legitimate public safety needs of the society, or are they accessing it in ways that abuse individual liberties and violate personal privacy â€" and in a manner that is unsupervised.

Not all of Mr. Simon’s fans welcomed his intervention in the debate, but the writer spent much of Friday afternoon and evening engaging with readers of the post, answering more than two dozen of the comments with some lengthy replies over the course of several hours.

Even those who do not share Mr. Simon’s perspective on the American government’s surveillance programs might find part of his post useful as an exploration of just how law-enforcement officials might try to use or make sense of such a vast amount of information.

That same issue was also addressed last year in a short film on the N.S.A. whistle-blower William Binney, which was made for the Opinion section of the New York Times Web site by Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker who co-authored the Washington Post’s article on the agency’s Prism program this week.

Last year, Ms. Poitras told Glenn Greenwald, the columnist and blogger whose reporting for The Guardian revealed the extent of the N.S.A.’s work, that she had been targeted by the federal government. Ms. Poitras said that she was repeatedly singled out for questioning as she returned from trips abroad to film interviews for documentaries on America’s military response to the 2001 attacks.