Just a month ago, Americans learned of the vast surveillance apparatus of the NSA, National Security Agency. They have access to the main servers of all the big internet corporations. NSA assures us they’re only collecting what’s called metadata; the times, locations, numbers (browsing histories?), without looking at the content, saying they’d need a warrant to do that. I guess we’re expected to sigh with relief. Nearly all the people who’s information is being catalogued are completely innocent, and not under suspicion of anything. In the case of some probably cause, a warrant would come from the FISA court (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act). So, after secret deliberations from secret individuals in a secret court, a secret order is issued. Does that sound like America to you? As if that weren’t bad enough, we’ve also learned that 70% of this top security surveillance is being done by private contractors (N.Y. Times, et al). Unlike government workers, they are not accountable to you and me, but only to the shareholders of their corporations. They are obligated to profit by all of this. I wonder if they get bonuses for “finding” the most terrorists. Disturbingly, most of the American sheeple polled seem more or less indifferent.
Nearly as disturbing was the President’s cavalier attitude about all this. In his comments he said that in order to keep us all safe, “there are trade-offs involved,” including “modest encroachments on privacy.” This he calls MODEST? I think someone needs to remind the President that he took his oath of office — twice — to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution, NOT the American people. There are ample provisions for them throughout the document. One of them is the Fourth Amendment. I’m quoting it in italics, because as we continue I’m going to ask you to refer back to it: 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 probably cause, supported by Oath of affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. Courts are mostly in agreement that electronic communications are an extension of “papers and effects.”
There is nothing ambiguous here, that I can see. It’s all very specific. It may not be good grammar, but I don’t think the NSA is looking for grammatical errors. Yet when NSA Chief Keith Alexander appeared later that week before congressional show hearings, he claimed this program has prevented fifty terrorist acts here and elsewhere. No, he couldn’t give evidence; classified, you know. You’ll just have to take his word for it. Astonishingly, he said that if you want to find a needle in a haystack, first you have to have the haystack. NO, Mr. Alexander, and NO, Mr. President, that’s not how it works in a free society. Both have said these blanket warrants all legal, and permitted by the Patriot Act (or their interpretation of it). Legal but unconstitutional? How can the Patriot Act be legal if it violates the Constitution?
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has said there is no guarantee of privacy in the Constitution. How a man could have risen to the very top of jurisprudence, and not know the Fourth Amendment, boggles the mind. Perhaps he’s referring to the argument that the word ‘privacy’ appears nowhere in the document, and that’s true enough. In 1791 the word had only one meaning — toilet functions. If someone had to go, he said he “needed some privacy.” Our word privy, for toilet, comes from the same roots. I was in a Paris museum one time, and needed some privacy. Walking down the halls, I came to a door with the sign “Prives.” My French being less than passable, I entered. A room full of well-dressed people stopped what they were doing, and all looked at me. I politely excused myself (in English), and backed out.
We’re accustomed to giving up our private data on Google, Apple, Microsoft, and the social networks, data which is traded back and forth like baseball cards, so we haven’t been doing ourselves any favors, privacy-wise. Like Hansel and Gretel, we leave digital bread crumbs everywhere we go. The difference is that Google can’t arrest and indefinitely detain us without charges or trial. Prospective employers are coercing people into giving up their passwords for Facebook or Twitter. Well, do you want the job or not? Security cameras are everywhere we go, GPS tracking devices are in our phones and cars, facial recognition software is proliferating. We no longer have a reasonable expectation of privacy anywhere outside our thoughts, and you can bet you ass that someone is working on that.
Would it surprise you to find that the NSA has had their ears on everyone since the 1980s? Go to your favorite search engine and enter “NSA” and “Echelon.” I can see two possibilities here. These people really are trying to keep us safe, but essentially they’re saying that not only can we not defeat the enemy on their own ground, but they can only protect us if we give up all our civil liberties. If that’s the case, then we need to replace these incompetents with folks who can do the job properly. The other possibility is that these people are all completely psychotic, which is to say, detached from reality. They see terrorists everywhere, over here, over there, in the closet, and under the bed. Again, we need to replace them with sane, rational human beings. Perhaps if the NSA spent less time pissing all over the civil rights of innocent Americans, and a little more time eyeballing people we know what to hurt us, they might have prevented the Boston Marathon bombing. It’s just a suggestion.
Increasingly, we’re hearing the argument, “Well, if you don’t have anything to hide, there’s nothing to worry about.” Alright, then let’s put cameras in everyone’s bedrooms and bathrooms. We’ll post video of you taking a crap while picking your nose, and you’ll never get laid again, ever. Is that okay? And what if what you have to hide is a deep resentment and growing anger at a psychopathic, out-of-control national security state? Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis said privacy is the right to be let alone. I’m afraid that is no longer possible. We no longer have what the law calls a reasonable expectation of privacy anywhere but in our thoughts. I’m sure someone is working on that, too.
I realize it’s perfectly reasonable for the government to keep some secrets from us. We couldn’t very well advertise that the Navy’s Seal Team 6 was on its way to assassinate Osama Bin Laden, could we? There are things that do need to be kept secret. I also know there are necessary restrictions on some of our rights, for the greater good of society. The example usually given is yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. With this much of our personal data available, the opportunities for corruption and abuse are legion. You may remember a few years ago the scandal over NSA people listening in on intimate conversations between our soldiers overseas and their loved ones. They made copies and swapped them around. What kind of oversight will there be, if any?
I reject the false argument that we must choose between safety and freedom. Ben Franklin warned us that any people willing to give up freedom for safety deserves neither, and will lose both. But if we must choose, then I’ll take back all my rights, including privacy, and take my chances with the terrorists. Since more Americans die each year by falling in their bathtubs than are killed by terrorists, I like my odds. I’ve got those gripper things on the bottom of my tub; mine are dolphins.
People are fighting back, though. Encryption software is available from the Tor Project and others. We could be screaming at our congress critters, too, and let them know how we feel (the half of us who cares, anyway). They’d like to dial this back, too, but they’re afraid of looking weak on defense. If you’d like to get active, you can go to restorethefourth.net or stopwatching.us. As a nation, we’ve succumbed to a form of madness. We have to find a way to snap out of it.
If we truly can’t have security and remain a free people, then what’s the point? We might as well chuck our Bibles for Korans, and start dressing our women in those beekeeper outfits, because the terrorists have already won. “They hate us for our freedoms” was the mantra of the war criminals George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. That’s not true, either. They hate us for invading their countries, stealing their resources, and murdering anyone who gets in the way. Unfortunately, it appears that it’s our own government that hates us for our freedoms.
“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes” (Who watches the watchers?) Juvenal, 1-2 A.D. Roman poet and satirist