More light on the NSA

Some government actions must be clandestine. But US citizens are being told so little about government spying on them that they lack the information they need to have an informed opinion about it.

Bobby Yip/Reuters
Photos of Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), and President Obama are printed on the front pages of English and Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong. Snowden, who is now in Hong Kong, leaked details of top-secret US surveillance programs and may face charges in the US.

By one count, sales of George Orwell’s "1984” have shot up nearly 10,000 percent recently on The classic novel that spawned the phrase “Big Brother is watching you” tells the story of a totalitarian government that closely spies on the lives of each and every citizen.

The obvious reason for this sudden interest is the news that the US National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting data on the phone calls of Americans, regardless of whether they are suspected of doing anything wrong. Americans may be turning to literature to speculate about what it all means because the US government apparently is going to have very little to say about the matter, citing security concerns and the war on terrorism.

That surge of interest in Orwell's work, however, isn’t reflected in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center and the Washington Post, which found that a majority of Americans (56 percent) say the NSA’s tracking of millions of telephone records is fine with them if it helps to fight terrorism. Americans seem to be getting more comfortable living in a world in which where you go, who you associate with, your religious beliefs, what you buy, your sexual preference, and much more are all shiny needles that today can be picked out of the haystacks of data available to the government’s computer farms.

Whether Edward Snowden, a US government contractor, was right to blow the whistle on NSA snooping could supply a whole college ethics course with questions to debate. He most likely has broken at least one or more laws. But he also must be judged in the light of the tradition of civil disobedience, when individuals take actions deemed illegal in service of what they see as exposing a great wrong.

The Internet Age has brought with it new challenges in defining a reasonable expectation of privacy. Society may indeed be comfortable with less privacy in an era of instant tweets and posts. But the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment still ensures “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” And the First Amendment still requires “freedom of speech” and association.

Even secret government operations must adhere to these standards. The American Civil Liberties Union was right to file a lawsuit challenging the NSA’s actions based on these amendments. Congress and a secret court have oversight now. But the ACLU case could help clarify what constitutes proper oversight.

In a democracy, citizens are expected to be honest and law abiding. And government is expected to be honest and law abiding as well. When a government hides too much of its workings from its own people it becomes susceptible to overreaching and abuse of power. The sunlight of transparency is needed.

Claims of the need for secrecy could prevent citizens from even holding a proper debate on these issues. At the very least government officials need to more clearly explain why these actions are being taken, why they must be kept secret, what safeguards are in place, and what positive results they are achieving.

Certainly some government activities are necessarily clandestine. But throwing too big and opaque a cloak over such a wide-ranging surveillance program leaves a democracy without an essential ingredient for survival: the information it needs to make informed decisions.

No one’s suggesting that anything close to Orwell’s “1984” is playing out now. But the readers of “1984” have the right idea if they're seeking to learn about the dangers of government snooping – and then insisting that as much sunlight as possible shine on the workings of government.

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