After 9/11, Bush administration officials unveiled plans to create an integrated, comprehensive surveillance state unprecedented in human history. The public rebelled against what the Defense Department called total information awareness, but the NSA and other government agencies continued constructing a spying infrastructure of previously unimaginable proportions. Despite the administrations promise that all war-on-terror surveillance satisfied traditional warrant requirements, the NSA circumvented even the loose restrictions established by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to curb abusive spying on Americans communications.
Senator Barack Obama ran for president promising to rein in this extra-legal spying. Instead, he has overseen its expansion. According to reports of leaked information coming from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, government surveillance can capture virtually everything we do online, all our telephone calls, all our e-mails, and all our social networking. The federal government has built a facility, the Utah Data Center, that can potentially store more information than is currently on the entire Internet.
We hear that surveillance is a natural product of the national security state, and this is true enough. In our globalized world, nothing can shield against domestic spying so long as the nation remains perpetually at war. This has been true since the American Revolution and the wars throughout the nineteenth century, and U.S. involvement in the World Wars and Cold War only amplified spying on the domestic population. So what we see with the NSA and the war on terror is nothing fundamentally new. Now, as always, Americans must decide between empire and privacy. Yet with stakes are much higher, todays technology, the and the problem goes even deeper than this.
The surveillance state is becoming totally integrated across all levels of government. From the sixteen agencies constituting the official intelligence community to the federal regulatory bureaucracies all the way down to local law enforcementand with assistance from major telecommunications and high-tech companiesa coordinated attack has arisen against what is left of privacy in America. Spy cameras on city streets, facial recognition software, surreptitious tracking by the U.S. Postal Service, government-mandated chips in our electronics, public school policies that invade students private lives, the government takeover of our cellphone microphones and laptop webcamsall of this points to a possible Orwellian future.
The trajectory is most frighteningU.S. government spying and data collection directed at the entire world.
The ease with which Snowden facilitated such a massive intelligence breach underscores governments incompetence at protecting the data it collects. We also know from the governments various intelligence failures relating to foreign policy that its problem is not insufficient data collection, and we should not expect any of these new powers to make us any safer.
Both parties, in both the presidency and in Congress, have demonstrated hostility toward privacy rights and the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court has routinely upheld extreme police powers to search private property in the name of combating illegal drugs. Financial regulation allows for the heavy scrutiny of practically every private economic transaction. Our health, legal, and personal records are now shared liberally across government bodies, with private firms, and with foreign states.
Government officials have misled the public about the scope of surveillance. They told us they arent listening in on telephone calls. They told us that theyre only targeting suspected terrorists. Along the way, some of us shrug off the new revelations and say that the admonitions from civil libertarians are the talk of paranoiaand yet what sounds paranoid one day we soon find out is in fact what the government has been doing. Our culture is being conditioned to having no privacy at all.
Privacy is a foundational value of civilization. Protection against unreasonable searches and seizure is one of the most precious of human rights. The best way to defend these rights is something of an open question, but not until we start asking it will we come close to finding the answer.