Your Christmas presents will no doubt come as a surprise to you, but if things are working the way they are supposed to these days, before the bundles even leave the North Pole in Santa’s sleigh, your jolly round director of the National Security Agency (NSA), Keith Alexander, should already have a pretty good idea of what you will be finding under the tree.
All through the year he’s had his own elfish ways to learn if you have been naughty or nice. Since the Edward Snowden revelations of massive eavesdropping on our private communications, we know that the NSA can easily scan your Google search history (giving new meaning to the term “Christmas cookie”) or listen in on your cell phone calls. So you better be good for goodness’ sake (oh, how we miss you at the holidays, Clarence!).
In truth, there is a bit of poetic license in that statement (prosaic licenses not being a thing yet). What we have learned since Snowden–a man born to a name so suited to a Christmas story–offered up his secret files to humanity earlier this year, is that technically the NSA doesn’t listen in on all our phone calls. The spy guys just get all the “meta data” on your life. They keep track of who you call, when, how often, how long you speak, that sort of thing. They can’t really tell anything from that. It’s not an invasion of privacy or anything.
It’s like they see the Christmas presents that your Mom and Dad have hidden in the closet. (Do parents really think that children never ever think to look in the closet?) When the parents aren’t home, the kids rush upstairs, push the grown-ups’ coats hanging on the rack aside and behold with a collective gasp the stack of wrapped packages. What a moment!
Then the kids, or in this case, the spies, get to pick up each package. They feel its weight. They ponder its shape. They shake it, they smell it, they caress the shiny wrapped bundle. And then, unable to restrain himself, one of the kids gets emboldened by curiosity and starts feverishly to scratch, with one fingernail, at a loose piece of tape applied to a corner of the present by an exhausted and bleary-eyed parent the night before.
“But wait!” the other children shout. “We cannot open the gifts. We can only assess the wrapped gifts.”
This is what the elves have come to refer to in the age of Snowden as the “meta-gifts.”
NSA officials defending the domestic spying programs they worked so hard to keep a secret from us refer to what they collect on us as “metadata,” and insist that they keep the program secret for our own good.
At which point, all the children obediently return the gifts to the pile while Santa goes off to find the nearest FISA Court, the federal authority that decides whether you have been naughty enough to let Gen. Alexander and his elves have at it with your phone calls.
And as we all know from our childhoods, no sugar cookie-crazed child would ever, ever open a wrapped present to find what’s inside before Christmas morn. To do so would be to invoke the wrath of Mom, Dad, Santa and all the elves. It would be to break faith with the very legend of Santa. It would be worse than suggesting that Santa is anything other than Caucasian. It would be to let on to the parents that we have some question about the veracity of this whole Santa tale.
Fortunately for the agents of the national security state, getting that panel to unwrap your gift package for the spymaster is almost as tough as getting Will Ferrell’s Elf to chug a two-liter bottle of Coke. If the kids go to the FISA court, they have more than a 99 percent chance that their request will be approved.
While the rest of us are asked to be good children believing in the kindness of a jolly old elf–who knows our every move. Merry Christmas!
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