The danger of American apathy on NSA surveillance
New documents released today reveal the alarming scope of NSA data collection. But half of Americans see the spying as 'no big deal.' They are allowing government to chip away at freedoms that others, especially in the Arab world, are giving their lives to build.
Little by little, Americans are allowing their government to chip away at the fortress of legal protections that people in less-privileged societies – including multiple nations in the Arab world – are giving their lives to build.Skip to next paragraph
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The director of National Intelligence today declassified and released documents describing the National Security Agency’s (NSA) “bulk collection” of Americans’ telephone records as taking place “on a very large scale.” Last week, the House of Representatives voted by a razor-thin margin to allow this practice to continue. The vote aptly reflects Americans’ polarized response to revelations about the NSA’s activities. Half the country is incensed by the secret spying. The other half, however, appears to have heeded Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s now-famous advice to “just calm down and understand that this isn’t anything that is brand new.”
Among this latter group, there is a sense that privacy advocates are making much ado about nothing. The NSA’s data collection programs were approved by federal judges; Congress knew about them; they’re used only to identify terrorists. What, exactly, is the big deal?
The most obvious answer is that these programs may be illegal. The government admits it obtains Americans’ telephone records in bulk, but claims officials do not examine them unless there is reason to suspect a terrorist link. Section 215 of the Patriot Act, however, requires the government to establish a record’s investigative relevance before obtaining it – not after. The PRISM program, which collects information from Internet service providers, is ostensibly legal because it “targets” foreigners. But the program tolerates extensive “inadvertent” and “incidental” collection of Americans’ information – including information the government needs a warrant to obtain under the Fourth Amendment.
Yes, a secret court approved these programs. That should not start and end the discussion about their legality. Judges make mistakes, and – as recent reporting on the secret Foreign Intelligence Service Act (FISA) Court has underscored – they are far more likely to do so when they hear only the facts and arguments that one side chooses to present. When citizens have gone to the regular courts to challenge government surveillance, the government has successfully argued that the courts cannot even consider their claims.
The programs also threaten Americans’ privacy. It is disingenuous for officials to characterize the “metadata” being collected as mere phone numbers. Sophisticated computer programs can glean volumes of sensitive information from this metadata about people’s relationships, activities, and even beliefs. The government knows very well how revealing call records can be; that is why it considers the program so valuable.