It’s been an amazing couple of days. Thanks to leaks of government documents and the hard work of some reporters, we’ve learned that the government has been collecting data on our telephone calls—three billion phone calls a day—and essentially watching from inside our computers while we work on the Internet. Government officials say this is for our own protection, that it’s a good way for them to gather information that can prevent terrorist attacks. The programs began while George W. Bush was president, and have continued under Barack Obama.
I’ve tried to get my head wrapped around the rapid-fire revelations of the government’s massive system of spying on its citizens; not a rogue operation, but a system pursued by the administration and authorized by Congress and the special Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Courts. I see that the stories are falling off of the front pages, but we need to fight becoming complacent about this Patriot-(Act)-ic intrusion into our privacy.
On Wednesday news broke of a secret order to Verizon forcing it to turn over metadata of all of its customers calls…we think this includes business, residential and cellular, and we think there are probably similar orders for other telephone providers, but the orders themselves are so secret that the companies can’t acknowledge if it exists. On Thursday we learned that the government has been tapping directly into the central servers of the major Internet companies to access emails, pictures and videos, etc. Late Thursday night government officials confirmed the program but insisted it is targeted only at people outside of the United States. They even claimed that the programs have succeeded in stopping terrorist attacks, although that claim seems dubious.
By Friday the president himself tried to assure American citizens that these programs were for their own good and that we have nothing to fear. He said, “It’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society. And what I can say is that in evaluating these programs, they make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity.”
Really? Well, that’s a load off of my mind; thanks for clearing that up for me, B.
I wrote earlier this week, “We cannot be such a craven and cowardly people that we’re willing to let our government spy on us constantly and record our activities and our associations in the name of protecting us from terrorist threats. If that’s true, then not only have the terrorists already won but the American example of an open and free society is lost. What the hell would the Founding Fathers think of us if they knew we were willing to abandon our liberty to a government that assured us it is only looking over our shoulders and listening to our phone calls for our own good?”
Only the ignorant or the naïve have ever expected total security in this world, or absolute liberty and privacy. That’s not the world we live in. There are crazy religious extremists who are killing innocent people out of a deluded belief that they are doing God’s will, and nothing more than common sense is needed to know that we have to take reasonable measures to protect ourselves from them. (There are crazy religious extremists who trying to turn our country into a theocracy of their own denomination out of a deluded belief that that is God’s will, and we need to step up and stop that attack, too.) I have no doubt that these programs have some positive effect when it comes to gathering valuable information against potential terrorists; what I object to is that these effective programs are targeted at all Americans. Jack Shafer put it well: it’s not that I object to the government pursuing terrorists and suspected terrorists…
What’s breathtaking about these two government surveillance programs that the Guardian and the Washington Post have revealed is that they’re vast collections of data about hundreds of millions of people suspected of no wrongdoing and not part of any civil action.
And, “Ultimately, it will be about the government’s pursuit of all the digital breadcrumbs we produce as necessary by-products of day-to-day life—and phone records and Web data are just a small part.
Bank records, credit history, travel records, credit card records, EZPass data, GPS phone data, license-plate reader databases, Social Security and Internal Revenue Service records, facial-recognition databases at the Department of Motor Vehicles and elsewhere, even 7-Eleven surveillance videos comprise information lodes that are of equal or greater value to the national security establishment than phone and Web files. It doesn’t sound paranoid to conclude that the government has reused, or will reuse, the interpretation of the Patriot Act that it presented to the secret FISA court in its phone record and Prism data requests to grab these other data troves.
Warning: slippery slope ahead…
UPDATE: A short time after I posted I ran across this: the NSA suggested to the Bush White House that the government needed to reconsider how it could effectively spy on people in the Digital Age, although it promised to (of course) obey the law and respect the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Well, yeah…
There are also a couple of pertinent new tweets worth a look over there on the rail, too.