Yesterday the New York Times published an excellent editorial on the federal government’s routine collection of data about everyday Americans. As the Times aptly framed the issue, the question is whether the government should be allowed to continue to use anti-terrorism efforts as a catch-all excuse for increasing encroachments into our private activities. In short, have we gone too far in trading liberty for (alleged) security?
The latest disclosures indicate that the federal government, through the National Security Agency and the FBI, obtains massive amounts of data from the servers of internet companies. The NSA also apparently has obtained an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that requires Verizon to give the NSA on “an ongoing, daily basis” information on all telephone calls in the Verizon system, including calls that are entirely domestic. That court order runs from April 25 to July 19, and will provide information on millions of calls — including mine, because Verizon is our cell phone provider. (Nice to know that, somewhere deep in the bowels of an NSA supercomputer, data about my calls to Kish telling her I’m on my way home from work will be preserved forever, available for use by whatever government functionary cares to access it!) And, of course, we know that in most metropolitan areas video surveillance cameras surreptitiously record our movements.
For decades, the argument in favor of enhanced government police powers has been that law-abiding citizens have no cause for concern, because only criminals would be targeted. That argument doesn’t wash when information about the personal activities of millions of Americans is gathered indiscriminately. Whatever you might think of your fellow citizens, we aren’t all terrorists. By what right does our government collect information about our telephone calls, our internet searches, and our daily movements? Shouldn’t anti-terrorist activities be focused on terrorists?
As the Times editorial linked above notes, the Obama Administration’s response to such disclosures has been to offer bland reassurances that systems are in place to prevent abuses. Those reassurances ring hollow in the wake of incidents like the IRS scandal or the Department of Justice targeting of journalists, where the President and other high-ranking officials disclaim any prior knowledge of classic examples of overreaching by faceless government employees. So, where are the systems that we are supposed to trust? With respect to many of these governmental intrusions, it appears that there is no control from the top and — if the statements of press secretaries are to be credited — no meaningful decision-making by anyone who can be held accountable to voters.
Under President Obama, the government’s ever-growing appetite for collection of data about average, taxpaying Americans seems to be on auto pilot. That is a very scary proposition.