Cynics say presidents have always sicced the IRS on opponents. Perhaps. But those were simpler times. The IRS audit scandal and the NSA’s metadata surveillance may be apples and oranges, but for many the distinctions aren’t so obvious. We live today inside a constant torrent of big government and big data. No one should be surprised if a political backlash, however inarticulate, forms against both for inconsistent reasons.
Consider what people are asked to absorb in the news flow now—some of it political, some not. Beyond the IRS audits and NSA surveillance we have a Department of Justice penetrating press activity protected by the First Amendment, stories about Iran’s hackers accessing the control-room software of U.S. energy firms, China hacking into everything, reports last month of cyberthieves siphoning millions of dollars from ATMs, rivers of email spam that fill inboxes alongside constant warnings to protect yourself against phishing and malware by storing industrial-strength passwords on encrypted flash drives, stories in this newspaper about social-media apps that exist mainly to collect your personal data for sale to advertisers.
Books have been written about governments using Web technology to censor and control their populations. What’s good and evil, helpful and menacing, comes at us with equal force from the same technologies. “Dual-use” was formerly a phrase used mostly in the military. We’re all living in a dual-use world now.