Is Uncle Sam a Peeping Tom?

Thomas Jefferson argued, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and for government to gain ground.” The events of the last weeks seem to confirm it

Uncle Sam is watching you
Fernando Menendez
On 11 June 2013 07:47

Edward Snowden, a contractor working for the National Security Agency (NSA), the US agency charged with surveillance of foreign communications, disclosed the existence of massive government data collection programmes to The Guardian newspaper. Allegedly, the programmes track the phone and Internet activities of millions of Americans.

In a chilling comment, Snowden explained the Internet surveillance programme, much like Orwell’s telescreen with its never-sleeping ear, has the ability to “watch your ideas form as you type.”

In April 2009, after admitting that “over-collection” of domestic communication exceeded NSA’s authorization, the Justice Department claimed these were unintentional and would be promptly ended. Snowden’s June 2013 NSA leaks prove this was false.

The revelation is big news in any event, but is not an isolated event. In the past few weeks, Americans have learned that the Department of Justice seized phone and e-mail records from reporters at Associated Press in Washington and New York, and then falsely accused a reporter of being a criminal co-conspirator and a potential flight risk to obtain a warrant searching his phone and Internet records. Another investigation shows the Internal Revenue Service has negatively targeted conservative groups seeking tax exemption as not-for-profit organizations. Earlier, the Supreme Court ruled that unabridged collection of DNA samples at the point of arrest is now a valid procedure.

Thomas Jefferson argued, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and for government to gain ground,” the events of the last weeks seem to confirm it.

Is Big Brother Watching You?

According to Fox News’ Catherine Herridge, the NSA is building the Utah Data Center, located 25 miles south of Salt Lake City, a one million square foot facility for collecting and storing an estimated 5 zettabytes of data (equal to 5 trillion gigabytes), or enough “to store every e-mail, cellphone call, Google search and surveillance camera video in America for a very long time.” This limitless capacity to pry raises the chilling specter of a dangerous and unscrupulous government.

Through the Prism programme, legal under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the intelligence community may access the servers of Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook and another five companies. Additionally, phone records have been accessed from Verizon, the largest cellphone service provider with 115 million subscribers. The latter programme mines phone call data including the numbers dialed, when, where and for how long. If someone is suspected of terrorist connections, then authorities obtain a warrant and match their calls to other calls in the database drawing links to potential co-conspirators.

The programme’s defenders argue they are not monitoring the phone calls’ contents only gathering aggregate data later accessible through a warrant. Nevertheless, a recent Rasmussen poll indicates 68 percent of respondents believe the government is, in fact, listening to conversations.

For Americans this raises serious questions of constitutionality. During the American Revolution, generalized search warrants allowed British soldiers to search all houses at random. The Fourth Amendment was specifically written into the U.S. Constitution to guard against this type of unreasonable search and seizure, requiring a warrant issued by a judge and supported by probable cause. But there are more than legal niceties involved here.

At the crux of the current dilemma is the degree of privacy Americans are willing to trade for security. Given the context of actual or potential threats, arguments on both sides of this divide can be rationally defended in a public debate.

The problem, however, is that the public debate has not taken place. Politicians and bureaucrats have, no doubt, discussed and decided to move forward towards greater security. As Sen. Saxby Chambliss of the Senate Intelligence Committee put it:Let me just emphasize, this is nothing particularly new. This has been going on for seven years under the auspices of the FISA authority and every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this.”

Trouble is, had the leak not taken place, the public would not have known.

Fernando Menéndez is an economist and principal of the Cordoba Group International LLC, a strategic consulting firm providing economic and political analysis to clients. Sign the petition to free Saeed Abedini here

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