In a speech last Friday, President Obama decided to make only minor reforms to the way the National Security Agency sifts the digital data of Americans and others when the spy agency looks for terrorist connections. Instead, he left the biggest and most difficult question to Congress: Who should store all this metadata, which largely consists of phone numbers dialed and the length of each call?
Mr. Obama offered two solutions: Either require private telecommunication firms to keep the data for five years or set up a third-party, quasi-governmental body to do it. The data should still be accessible to government, Mr. Obama said, just in case “a bomb goes off in one of our cities and law enforcement is racing to determine whether a network is poised to conduct additional attacks.”
At the heart of the problem is the willingness of Americans to hand over some individual sovereignty in exchange for collective security. Obama’s solution suggests a low public trust right now in the government’s ability to safeguard secrecy or prevent abuse of personal information. As James Madison wrote at the country’s founding, Obama seems worried about “the abridgment of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power.”
The president is right to ask lawmakers to change the current setup and capture the public’s view on this issue. Congress must decide by June 2015 whether to reauthorize the NSA’s bulk data collection.
In daily commercial life, most Americans still hand over personal information to companies such as Verizon or Google. Those companies in turn provide legal “privacy agreements” on how the data is used or kept safe. Despite the occasional data breach, this company-consumer bond endures.
After the 9/11 attacks, voters gave a similar trust to Congress. Lawmakers then allowed the NSA to step up surveillance and tried to strike a reasonable balance between privacy and national security, albeit a balance largely unknown to the public. Now that the world knows the extent of NSA surveillance, Obama seeks a way to remove the NSA from storing information too long.
The president is correct in going back to the well of public sentiment, as expressed through Congress. In doing so, he sends a reminder that the legitimizing first principle of a democracy lies in individual self-government, or personal sovereignty. A government’s primary role is to protect individual rights. Citizens can then choose to give up some rights through elected bodies in order to achieve a common purpose.
Just as each consumer is responsible for how much personal data will be given to a company, citizens are responsible for electing a Congress that can decide how much data will be collected on them. The NSA was not a rogue agency but rather doing a secret job tasked by lawmakers. Now that the secret is out, it is time again to renew the delicate equilibrium between private sovereignty and collective security.