Protect Me from the Protectors

Senate confirmation hearings on General Michael Hayden raised a number of questions about the NSA surveillance program. While the devil is always in the details, let me risk oversimplifying the arguments pro and con: one side says such programs make us safer without unacceptably invading our liberties; the other side says—to plagiarize New Hampshire’s motto—live free or die.

 That’s the wrong debate.

Leave aside the troubling issue of government honesty and accountability. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the Administration played by the rules. Let’s further assume that intrusions on our liberties are, as proponents assert, minimal. What are the risks and rewards of this data mining operation? Is it making us safer—or is it actually compromising our safety?

Whatever its effectiveness in protecting us from terrorists—a hotly debated proposition within the FBI and CIA—this program and the “War on Terror” create significant non-terrorism-related security risks. As one scholar warns, the executive’s power to do whatever he deems necessary to “conduct war” will “displace the area previously assumed to fall within the criminal justice system.” In other words, the President will increasingly have a choice whether to categorize threats as matters of national security or matters of crime and criminal justice. We are already creating a “parallel law enforcement structure” not subject to constitutional restrictions. It will be increasingly tempting to argue that the criminal justice system is too inflexible and outmoded to use during the war on terror.  

If that is too abstract a concern, consider the very immediate, practical dangers posed by the existence of such a database. To begin with, it vastly increases opportunities for identity theft. Even if (as the Administration insists) conversations aren’t being monitored, numbers are. How many times have you used your telephone’s keypad to punch in bank codes or credit card numbers? All it would take to give thieves access to that information is one breach in computer security, or one  NSA employee with financial problems or dubious ethics.

How about blackmail?  What if government had evidence that an annoying activist or legislator was calling a phone sex line? Do you think that information might be used to get votes changed, investigations dropped, or public criticisms muted? It happened to Martin Luther King—and that was before we got so technologically sophisticated. The government has already used NSA information to identify who is leaking information to the press. If whistleblowers know their calls can be tracked, how long before we stop getting any inside information about government wrongdoing?

American privacy is vanishing. Our telephone companies willingly sold the records on each of us to the government. For money. Other businesses—Amazon, Google, your doctor, your insurance company—amass huge amounts of data on us all. We trade this information for convenience, and like many people, I have considered that trade mutually beneficial. If I knew the information might be turned over to government, I would have second thoughts, and I imagine many other people would as well.

For most Americans, Big Brother poses a much greater threat than Osama Bin Ladin.