With leaker Edward Snowden revealing to the world that the National Security Agency has been both monitoring phone records for all Americans and obtaining emails, videos, voice chats and other private communications between American citizens and those outside the United States under the so-called PRISM program, controversy has broken out over the scope of government surveillance.
Many on the right and the left have argued that these programs are necessary to curb terrorism. Both Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner of Ohio have proclaimed that Snowden is a traitor for revealing the existence of the programs. Both Republican House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers of Illinois and President Barack Obama say that the programs have stopped terrorist attacks.
Meanwhile, others argue that these programs do not threaten basic civil liberties at all, and that Americans have nothing to fear. David Brooks of the New York Times says that the real threat to Americans isn't surveillance, but cynicism: "Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric ..."
The truth is far less black and white than all of this. These programs may stop terror attacks; it is likely they have done so. But are they necessary to stop terror attacks, or are they merely the most convenient means for the government to do so? We all want Americans to be safe. But we also would like our emails to be private. Are those two goals mutually exclusive?
Here are the top seven reasons to worry about these federal surveillance programs.
1. It's the federal government, and the federal government cannot be trusted with unlimited personal information. As we've seen from the IRS scandal, actors at any level of government can use information to target political opposition. Distrust of government isn't baseless cynicism. It's realism. The government is filled with human beings -- 1.4 million, at last count, who have top secret security clearances. Some are bound to be nasty. After all, if Boehner and Feinstein are right, and Snowden is a traitor, he had access to all that information, too.
2. Blanket surveillance does not mesh with the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment is quite clear on the notion that search and seizure must not be unreasonable. It is difficult to think of something more unreasonable than searching the private phone records and digital information of citizens who are suspected of nothing.
3. Where does government power stop? What information does the government not have a right to see at this point? Obamacare has made the government part of our health care decisions. The IRS controls all of our financial information. The NSA apparently sees everything else.
4. The anti-terror rationale for violation of rights is identical to the rationale for gun control. Many of the same folks on the right now defending NSA surveillance object to blanket gun laws that affect the rights of hundreds of millions. The argument on the left is simple: To save one life, we'll take as many guns as we have to. Flip this argument to terror, and suddenly many on the right make that exact argument. It's bad policy on both fronts.
5. It's an excuse to treat terror in politically correct fashion. There are many who say that we have accepted blanket screening at airports and should therefore accept blanket screening of personal information. That presumes that blanket screening at airports isn't asinine. It is. Profiling behavior and associations should be the basis for law enforcement. The government argues that a panopticon national security apparatus keeps Americans safest. But that ignores the fact that panopticon capabilities do not necessarily translate into panopticon effectiveness.
6. Centralization of information is a magnet for foreign hacking. Reportedly, much of this NSA information will be kept at a centralized location in Utah. Recently, the Chinese government has been hacking into American governmental installations including the Federal Reserve and the Pentagon. Keeping our information available for download by a creative foreign government is a recipe for disaster.
7. The nature of Americanism is changing in very nasty ways thanks to growth of government. The debate about rights versus safety is a valuable one. But too many Americans are now thinking in terms of "needs" vs. rights. We have heard politicians ask whether we truly need to be free from government surveillance; these same politicians often ask whether we need a certain level of income, or need AR-15s. We may not need those things, but we have a right to them. The moment America becomes a "needs" country in which the government unilaterally decides what we need and regulates everything else we cease to be America.