NSA Surveillance, Data Mining, Security, and Civil Liberties

“Congress is full of hypocrites. Liberals who criticized Bush are less incensed with Obama. Republicans who bowed to Bush are now blasting Obama. The next time your congressional representative criticizes Obama for curbing civil liberties, ask if he or she would vote to repeal the Patriot Act, the post-911 law that handed unfettered power to the intelligence and military bureaucracies. Most won’t.”  ~ Ron Fournier, “Welcome to the Bush-Obama White House: They’re Spying on Us (National Journal)

The trend of leaking government classified information continues. Last week we discovered that Verizon has been sharing customer phone data with the government: when and where customers’ phone calls are placed and to whom, though we are told the content of these calls are not being monitored. The next day it was revealed that the National Security Agency has been mining user data under its PRISM program from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple, and PalTalk. These companies strongly refute this claim, but then again, they must save face with their customers.

America’s surveillance state began decades ago but has picked up steam over the past twelve years. The war on terror has coincided with technological advances that make surveillance and information gathering so much easier than in previous decades. This twelve-year project has been a bipartisan effort—with very few detractors. Presidents Bush and Obama, both parties in Congress, federal judges and lawyers, and communication and technology companies have all worked together to create a vast surveillance infrastructure.

Proponents of the current national security measures argue that they are necessary, they have kept Americans safe, they are legal, and it is the “leakers” of classified information that pose a big threat to America’s security. Opponents, on the other hand, see this as a massive government overreach, intrusion of privacy and civil liberties, weakening of democracy, and further erosion of trust in government. Both sides have valid arguments, which is why this is such an important conversation for the American public to have with their leaders.

And it’s not only the government. As Michael Lietke wrote in the Huffington Post:  “It’s such a rich vein of information that U.S. companies and other organizations now spend more than $2 billion each year to obtain third-party data about individuals, according to Forrester Research.” Corporations are gathering data on us as well.

Americans are being cyber-stalked by advertisers. Ever notice how a product or service that you have searched for or purchased suddenly appears on website pages you read online? That doesn’t happen by accident. This is the result of data mining. The Internet knows your product preferences, services you utilize, restaurants and other establishments you frequent, who your friends are, and a whole cornucopia of other information relevant to your life.

This is a bit unsettling; or perhaps it’s not to some people. Americans love their technology.  Is it any wonder that this recent NSA revelation, unlike the  IRS’ (a universally despised institution) scandal, has received a collective yawn?

1984I plucked my copy of George Orwell‘s 1984 from my book shelf to read again; it’s been a while. Walter Cronkite wrote a special preface to this book in 1983 (Orwell published it in 1949). Here is some of what Cronkite wrote:

1984 is an anguished lament and a warning that we may not be strong enough nor wise enough nor moral enough to cope with the kind of power we have learned to amass. That warning vibrates powerfully when we allow ourselves to sit still and think carefully about orbiting satellites that can read license plates in a parking lot and computers that can tap into thousands of telephone calls and telex transmissions at once and other computers that can do our banking and purchasing, can watch the house and tell a monitoring station what television program we are watching and how many people there are in the room. We think of Orwell when we read of scientists who believe they have located  in the human brain the seats of behavioral emotions like aggression, or learn more about the vast potential of genetic engineering.

And we hear echoes of that warning chord in the constant demand for greater security and comfort, for less risk in our societies. We recognize, however dimly, that greater efficiency, ease, and security may come at a substantial price in freedom, that law and order can be a doublethink version of oppression, that individual liberties surrendered for whatever good reason are freedoms lost.

Cronkite wrote those words thirty years ago; they remain eerily relevant today. How much government intrusion are we willing to allow in order to be safe? Do the terrorist threats truly warrant as much surveillance as we are being told is needed? Some experts say the terrorist threat is overstated, even going back several years. Read this 2008 article from the Cato Institute and this one by John Mueller in the September/October 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs.

National security is important, protecting state secrets and classified information is also important, but balancing security with civil liberties and transparency is critical to preserving the freedom Americans claim to so highly value. The time for this national discussion is past due.

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