Saturday, June 15, 2013

Civil Liberties on the Ropes

The recent NSA leak stories have been on my mind quite a bit lately. I'm not a fan of the fact that our own government is secretly collecting amounts of data on our communications so large that it introduced most of us to terms like "zettabyte". It will be fine, we are assured by officials, because Congress and the Courts are overseeing the scheme. Of course, what those officials rarely mention is that only a few members of Congress have access to classified information (and then are legally barred from talking about it publicly) and that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that oversees the NSA works in the dark, so secretively in fact that it won't even publish its decision that explains how section 215 of the so-called "Patriot Act" supposedly allows the program to occur in the first place. Could we have more details please? No, that would apparently damage "national security".

Sorry, but I'm not overwhelmed by the quality of the oversight.

Leave it to the ACLU to warm my heart in troubled times. They are at least denouncing the situation and suing the government over the NSA's phone surveillance program (give them some money please). They allege that the NSA searches themselves are so broad that they violate the 4th Amendment and that the gag orders on people who have to turn over records as well as the overall chilling effect the whole program has on speech violate the 1st Amendment.

I find two aspects of the response to these revelations particularly egregious. The first is how people will imply it's not a big deal because private companies already have a lot of our data. While I don't dispute that it is important to be mindful of the data we give away to private companies, I do think there is an important difference between voluntarily giving away information to receive some benefit (as when you use a grocery store's membership card to get a discount) and having the government involuntarily collect information on everyone just in case it might help them track down terrorists. The government needs to get a warrant based on probable cause to snoop through people's private information and these warrants should be narrowly tailored.

The second aspect of the response that really bugs me is how many of the same Democrats who hated these policies under Bush, now defend them under Obama. Unchecked government power is fine, as long as our guy is in charge, apparently. Thomas Hobbes would be proud.

Are we really so afraid of terrorism, a threat which is less likely to cause death than obesity or car crashes, that we would compromise essential liberties in the name of so-called "security"? Do we really need Big Brother's watchful eye, or are we a free people that stands for a set of principles to govern by and to live by? Think hard about that one, because excessive government secrecy and surveillance have a corrosive effect on democracy. It's not about left or right, and it's not about whether this makes Obama look bad (which it does). This is way more important. This is about whether or not our freedom and human dignity will be respected. Raise your voice. At least you know somebody will be paying attention.

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