On Government Surveillance and Why You Should Care

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This week has been a tumultuous one for the Obama administration. Hot on the heels of the IRS scandal, spying on AP Reporters, and more developments with Benghazi, The Guardian broke a story on the NSA collecting millions of Americans’ phone records, The Washington Post exposed PRISM, a massive data spying program run by the NSA, The Wall Street Journal implicated every major US telecom company in handing over customers’ private data to the government, and the New York Times catalogued the way major tech firms like Google, FaceBook, and Apple are trying to hide it

These revelations are not a new bone for the media to chew on for a week; this week represents a touchstone moment for Americans’ understanding of their government in the 21st century. Every American child is taught from a young age that their country is unique; instead of suffering tyranny by the government, we are taught that our forefathers fought and died so that we could be free. President Wilson articulated the creed of American Exceptionalism that remains the foundation of our foreign policy to this day; the American public supports action by the United States abroad with the faith that we are exporting a better way of life – democracy, a government by the people and for the people, rather than government of the people. 

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This week, Americans learned that this romantic vision of their country is shockingly far from the reality in which they find themselves today. We learned that the government has been secretly spying on us for years with no warrant, under the auspices of “fighting terrorism”. The ends are not worth the means; consider that Americans were four times more likely to die from a lightning strike than terrorism in the last five years and the blood-curdling fear of “terror” that our government is fighting loses a lot of its edge. It would seem that our leaders have elected to eschew the constitution in favor of some short term security and more power for themselves. Benjamin Franklin would surely be disappointed, having posited that, “those who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither”.

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Indeed, there seems to be no limit to how far our government will go to gain more power and insight into Americans behind our backs. The Department of Homeland Security is building a massive, national database on every American, the Obama administration is classifying more information and prosecuting more whistleblowers than any administration before it, the FBI sends tens of thousands of ultra secret National Security Letters every week to spy on Americans without their knowledge (or a warrant), and the NSA is spending untold billions on a two new massive data centers to store and analyze everything that is sent over the internet. Again, all of this without Americans’ knowledge or consent.

Where does it stop? Should we permit the government to install GPS trackers on our cars to monitor our movements? Cameras and microphones in our houses? Surely the only people who would object would be those who have something to hide! Besides, it’s all in the name of protecting Americans.

I, for one, won’t stand for it. The government is not some omnipotent deity; it is a collection of self-interested people acting under institutions that has the force of law behind it. In many cases, government is good and necessary, but not here. The risks outweigh the rewards. We set up our system of checks and balances to do just that – this unilateral paradigm of act first (in secret) and ask permission later (only when leaks compel it) undermines that balance, and threatens the institutions that have gotten us this far. We’ve come too far and have too much ahead of us to allow a few misguided politicians to ruin it all now.

More great reading:

The New York Times: President Obama’s Dragnet

Foreign Policy: Obama’s Surveillance State

Reuters: Obama’s overdue reckoning on secrecy

The Guardian: On whistleblowers and government threats of investigation

Salon: America The Passive

TechCrunch: Blanket Surveillance. Total Secrecy. What Could go Wrong?

The Daily Beast: Behold the NSA’s Dark Star: The Utah Data Center

 

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