The Government Wants Your Data

The Government Wants Your Data

Thursday Review Editorial

The events of September 11, 2001 have been described as having had a cultural and societal impact similar to the shock felt by Americans of an earlier generation in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. It changed our world. In each case, we were under attack.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Americans accepted that acts of terror were tantamount to warfare. Terrorists were enemy combatants, subject to treatment as such. Fair enough.

But then, the flow chart of democratic processes became complex, and the grey areas became greyer, shrouded in a fog of convoluted moral reasoning. Some in government sought to ensure the security of its citizenry in ways that required elastic interpretations of the Constitution. The seeds of this process began in the early years of George W. Bush, and became—by the middle aught years—a source of political contention and divisiveness: two major wars, unending and indefinite detainments in Guantanamo and other locations, harsh interrogation techniques, warrantless wiretapping, data mining on a (literally) global scale.

Some conservatives embraced the grim necessity of these events; while many liberals expressed moral outrage. In the meantime, two elections have passed, turning largely on economic issues. Still, we accepted that someone, somewhere, was watching out for our domestic tranquility. Fences were built along borders, security was tightened at airports and train stations, an entire federal bureaucracy was developed to keep us safe and watch our backs, and—save for the many disturbed individuals with automatic weapons born within our own borders—terror was thwarted. Indeed, the Boston Marathon bombings were the first serious attack in a dozen years.

But in quiet, and mostly in secret, we were all being watched and listened to. The scale of what was happening seemed to grown, not less, despite the changes in the political wind. High tech drones were quietly upgraded from a cameras-only template to a tool of deadly retribution, what one general recently called “the ideal multi-task platform.” Warrantless wiretapping, we now learn, became routine and widespread. IRS scrutiny of the religious or spiritual behavior of political organizations and tax-exempt groups became, magically, accepted practice.

That those programs continued more-or-less unabated through the first half of the administration of Barack Obama tells us less about the so-called political differences—between Democrats and Republicans, between liberals and moderates and conservatives, between security hawks and libertarian doves—than it tells us about what we have come to expect and accept from the concept of government. It was all for our own good, or so we were told, just as we have been told this week.

Once, when I was a kid, there was outrage when it was revealed that President Richard Nixon and his operatives were spying on Americans for no other reason than their political views. Nixon, too, rationalized his actions, telling those around him that in times of chaos and civil unrest and revolution, someone must take action to secure order and bring stability back to society. Fair enough. But his actions would eventually lead his own men to commit crimes—warrantless wiretapping, disruption of political events and organizations, IRS and Justice Department retribution against political enemies, even burglary. The pattern was justified internally by very smart people with law degrees. But ultimately it would lead obstruction of justice and resignation.

Soon afterward, rules were put in place that essentially prohibited the government or any of its agencies from spying on Americans. Those rules were widely accepted by both liberals and conservatives, and by Democrats, Republicans and independents alike.

Now, in Washington, heads of major departments of government face the withering incoming ire of elected leaders who want to know how—in the short span of a dozen years—have we allowed so much spying to have grown so pervasive and to such epic dimensions, seemingly in violation of our own instincts and democratic sensibilities.

Testifying before a Senate committee yesterday, Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon asked General Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, point-blank: do you think the decision-making processes and seemingly elastic standards for domestic surveillance should be made available for public discussion? “I think that makes sense,” Alexander said, adding “…the intent is to get transparency here.”

The scope and reach of the NSA’s mission—as we now understand it—has been set largely by a shadowy Star Chamber court called FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), a direct product of the Patriot Act, and a decision-making venue which many conservatives and liberals agree operates in a capacity—to put it delicately—outside the boundaries of traditional constitutional process.

But that’s not the full story of this perfect storm. Until a week ago, the vast majority of Americans had little if any knowledge of just how vast was the harvest of data being collected, for at about the time that the NSA’s powers to spy on American citizens was beginning its upward climb, as authorized by Congress (the details of which were hammered out in secret), Americans were transitioning almost entirely into the digital age of the new millennia. Starting in the fall of 2003, the NSA and other agencies—operating without the power of a judge or a court—began collecting data on a scale never imagined—phone calls, text messages, instant messages, social media postings, emails, computer uploads and downloads, browser histories, search engine requests. Companies like Google, AT&T, Verizon, AOL, Microsoft and Apple—to name a few—apparently engaged in quiet cooperation with the government.  Even former vice-President Al Gore weighed in on this subject, declaring that he does not find President Obama's justifications for the domestic spying to be either valid or constitutional.

The noble goal has been security from terrorism.

But the shock of the body blow, now evident as the scope and magnitude of the FISA-authorized spy programs have come to light in the past week, gives most Americans pause to reconsider how much our world has changed in the 12 years since 9/11. Cynics have suggested that the feds have been watching us for decades, so why sweat it now. Some security hawks have said all along that in order to insure our safety from terror, we should accept these draconian measures and move on with our lives—after all, if you have nothing to hide, why complain?

But recent polls (by CBS News and Gallup) indicate queasiness by the majority of Americans to accept this level of intrusion in their lives. With good reason we should feel uncomfortable. Never in history has so much personal information been available to collect in so many ways, and never could we have imagined—except in science fiction or social fantasy—how easily and thoroughly our actions, interests and conversations could be tracked. Nor could we have foreseen the growth of government reach into our lives and choices.

Overheated overstatement? Think about the events of the last six weeks: IRS agents asking about the religious practices of members of tax-exempt political groups; Justice Department demands for phone records of reporters; prosecution of news entities and journalists for simply reporting the news; admission by government agencies that drones have been used to gather information about American civilians; admission that the scale of warrantless wiretapping and eavesdropping is enormous and widespread; acknowledgement by Verizon, Google and other major web giants that they have “cooperated” with the government to provide your data to investigative agencies like the FBI and the NSA.

How much information do we want our government to have in the name of security? The question transcends conservatism or liberalism, Republican versus Democrat, red state versus blue, language, ethnicity or religion. The question is fundamental to democracy—or at least our understanding of how we choose to make the essential trade-offs in our lives.

For the sake of establishing security from a particular kind of violence, have we too easily traded away freedoms?