Do you value your privacy? Well, here’s something to think about – your phone company could be compromising it in ways that you hadn’t realized. Using the tracking data from your cell phone, it is keeping precise records of your whereabouts at any given time and it is now being compelled by court order to share these records with the government. This so called “meta” data does not include the actual content of the communications but it does include who, when, where, how and how long. This is enough information to develop a very revealing profile of your private life. To give you an idea of just how revealing check out this interactive graphic of the data on Malte Spitz a politician in Germany who sued the telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom to release the data collected from him from August 2009 to February 2010.
“It revealed when Spitz walked down the street, when he took a train, when he was in an airplane. It shows where he was in the cities he visited. It shows when he worked when he slept, when he could be reached by phone and when he was unavailable. It shows when he preferred to talk on his phone and when he preferred to send a text message. It shows which beer gardens he liked to visit in his free time. All in all, it reveals an entire life.”
This is important and has far reaching privacy implications. Everyday, going about minding our own business, just about all of us are generating huge amounts of electronic data. Records are being kept not just of our phone use, but of our use of the internet, what we listen to, what we watch on TV, what books we read, what we purchase, our bank transactions, who we associate with, organization we belong to, our health records the list goes on and on. Theoretically, with the advanced technology now available and the science of big data there is virtually no limit to the amount of data that can be collected, stored and analyzed. And now this is no longer even theory, because under the banner of National Security and a policy of “total information awareness” our government has been quietly building a top-secret data center – the largest in the world – that has the capacity to process and store a complete and detailed record of every single person on the planet if they wanted to. The future is here. It is now technically possible, with a few clicks on a keyboard, to have the history of your whole life – in minute detail – opened for inspection. Thank goodness we live in country that has a Constitution with a Bill of Rights that protects us from the government making any unreasonable searches and seizures of our private data – . . . or does it?
When we give permission to someone for private data to be collected from us we have every right to expect that this information will not be given to others without our expressed consent. And most of us certainly would not consent to allow some stranger to secretly make copies of all their e-mail, telephone, and internet records so that they could be stored for later analysis. But, thanks to the whistle blower Edward Snowden, it has become clear that this is precisely what our government is doing. The documents he released show how the National Security Agency (NSA) with very little Judicial or Congressional oversight has been secretly vacuuming up vast amounts of personal information; collecting and storing nearly everything we’re doing on the internet. – including our phone records – even as they deny that they are violating anyone’s privacy and are acting completely within the law.
What the NSA does is induce, under oath of secrecy, backed by penalty of law, private companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon, Verizon, ATT and any other they deem necessary, to share their records of our private data. This clearly, even by their own admission, would be a violation of the fourth amendment – except, (according to them) they are very reasonable and we just need to trust them, because they’re only trying to keep us safe – remember 9/11? It’s all top-secret, of course, but we’re not to worry because they have safeguards in place – they only violate the privacy of those that deserve it, that is, foreigners and anyone who communicates with foreigners and anyone who communicates with those that communicate with a foreigner. It’s all legal under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
Privacy is an important and fundamental right of a free and open society. It is not enough to just say “If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to worry about.” History has shown, time and again, we relinquish this right with grave peril. As George Orwell once wrote: “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”
“Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority. It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters.” –Noah Webster
The IV Amendment of the Bill of Rights
(Privacy of the Person and Possessions) The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis had this to say on the subject of privacy:
“The makers of our Constitution understood the need to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness, and the protections guaranteed by this are much broader in scope, and include the right to life and an inviolate personality – the right to be left alone – the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized man. The principle underlying the Fourth and Fifth Amendments is protection against invasions of the sanctity’s of a man’s home and privacy’s of life. This is a recognition of the significance of man’s spiritual nature, his feelings, and his intellect.” ( Olmstead vs. U.S. – 1928 )
Should we just trust that a government with almost complete access to our most personal and private affairs will always do the right thing with that information – to act only for the sake of the common good?
Expediency in protecting us from some unknown potential harm from some unknown enemy is not a legitimate excuse for the NSA to disregard universally held values on the sanctity of personal privacy and the right of due process in a court of law – both guaranteed by the fourth and fifth amendments of the constitution. It’s called the Bill of Rights for a reason. Just because they have the technology and ability to eavesdrop on everyone and can cite good reasons for doing so, doesn’t mean they should be allowed to. Even with the best of intentions, this kind of power could easily – and no doubt has – lead to innocent people being harmed by being wrongly targeted or even worse, political blackmail and extortion – remember J Edgar Hoover?
While some may feel that we can trust the current administration to use this incredible power judiciously, there could easily come a time when there will be those in government for whom the temptation will be too great and will conspire to use it for totalitarian control. This is a real possibility – particularly when one considers the growing awareness of people to the unprecedented disparity of wealth and who are now demanding fundamental change to an inherently unfair system of distribution – not to mention the toxic atmosphere within the government itself causing a dangerous paralysis of the legislative body. The end simply does not justify the means.
The dangerous powers of the NSA and the other secret police agencies must be reined in and held accountable.
Do we really want to live in a society where everyone is treated as a possible suspect and some hidden bureaucracy is watching and listening – monitoring our behavior from a vast network of surveillance platforms; reading our mail; profiling us using huge electronic databases?
Do we really want this secret bureaucracy to be the Judge, Jury, and Executioner and allow them to use drones to assassinate someone because that person happens to fit a profile that they have deemed to be a threat? Without a trial? With evidence that is classified and only a few get to see? All in the name of public safety?
This not only could happen – it already has! killing somewhere between 1,299 and 2,264 people
Because of 9/11 are we really so fearful that we are willing to give up on a basic social contract that so many have fought and died for? If the rule of law means anything it is that any accused person has the right to confront their accuser and defend themselves in front of a judge in an open court of law. The founding father built in checks and balances precisely to prevent this kind of usurping of power. They rightly understood that unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it. This is a very real danger that must be guarded against. History has shown time and again that ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Have we not learned anything from the experience of the German and Russian people where even the mention of the words “Gestapo” or “KGB” could induce terror?
The Government is the potent omnipresent teacher. For good or ill it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. To declare that the end justifies the means — to declare that the government may commit crimes — would bring terrible retribution.– Justice Louis D. Brandeis
What kind of world do we want to pass on to our children: A totalitarian world order like George Orwell’s 1984 – where we think we’re safer because thought crimes are prosecuted? Or a society based on fairness and justice with a limited government that is transparent and accountable to the people – not just the wealthy – that respects human dignity, due process and the rule of law; a world that protects the rights of all its citizens regardless of their wealth, race, religion, gender – or national origin? After all, isn’t this the ideal that we all believe in – that so much blood, sweat and tears has been spent in trying to achieve? Are we or are we not an exceptional country that upholds these high values that serve as a beacon for people around the world?
“Secrecy and a free, democratic government don’t mix.” – Harry S Truman, 33rd President
Yes, the world is a dangerous and uncertain place but let’s put this in perspective. We are 9 times more likely to be killed by gun violence from a neighbor than we are from a collective attack by a foreign nationalist (2.8 verses 0.3 per 100,000); We are 25 times more likely to die from the flu (7.4 verses 0.3 per 100,000 people); 42 times more likely to die by committing suicide (12.8 verses 0.3 per 100,000); 62 times more likely to die by diabetes – a treatable and largely preventable disease! (18.6 vs. 0.3 per 100,000). In fact, we have a slightly higher risk of being killed by contact with a non-venomous animal than we do with a terrorist.
Life is risky, no doubt about that, but we should not go through it living in fear. We must not let fear cloud our judgement. We can have a reasonable level of security without giving up our fundamental rights of privacy and due process. It is not reasonable to think that we somehow can eliminate risk by a government policy of “total information awareness” which is, of course, an absurdity. If saving lives is the goal, the 52.6 billion dollars of taxpayers money spent in 2013 on secret intelligence could obviously be put to use in much more effective ways.
Yes, there are legitimate reasons for the government to have secrets but these should be few and must be done with proper oversight and the checks and balances that the founding fathers so wisely wrote into the constitution. Government officials should not be able get away with lying to Congress with impunity. Yet, this is exactly what happened when both James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence and Keith Alexander, Director of the NSA, testified that the NSA did not collect and store meta data on the communications of the American people when in fact it did. Meanwhile, they are prosecuting Snowden as a traitor for simply telling the truth to the American people.
We need to be keeping an eye on the government not the other way around. Congress is woefully mired in gridlock unable to pass any meaningful reform – largely because of the unprecedented amount of money being spent by a wealthy few to promote their personal agendas. These issues need to go before the American people where they should be given the truth in order to hold their government accountable. If you would like more information or if would like to get involved check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation. This is one of the many groups working to defend our rights in the digital world. We all need to do our part to make a difference. While we are still free to do so we must stand up for our rights, otherwise we could very well lose them.
The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist . . . We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” –President Eisenhower (1961, at the end of his second term, in his farewell speech)
P.S. Thank you Edward Snowden for having the courage to blow the whistle and speak the truth for the sake of us all, even while facing great personal peril. History will record that you acted as a true patriot.