Postmodern kids in a post‑9/11 world, this generation worries more about what our mothers might find on Facebook than what Big Brother could discover in our inbox.
That’s according to a January Pew Research poll, which shows 60 percent of young people still support the National Security Agency regardless of its controversial domestic spying program. Another 10 percent don’t even care.
Living, banking, and dating online, we’ve become comfortably numb to the deterioration of our civil liberties. Now this indifference allows the NSA to endanger our personal security and the safety of our republic.
Before the advent of the Internet, intelligence agencies needed a warrant to tap a phone or bug an apartment. Today, that information is just a click away. In the last decade, government jujitsu has turned the information superhighway into history’s most sophisticated instrument of espionage.
Using programs with codenames fit for Bond films — like PRISM, Optic Nerve, and DishFire — the NSA collects phone records, online data, and the search histories of millions of Americans. Afterwards, the agency searches through this dragnet to evaluate risks. It’s the classic spy-now-ask-later racket over which our Founding Fathers would throw a fit.
Advocates argue that keeping Americans safe is well worth any incidental privacy premiums. In January, President Obama credited the domestic surveillance program with “preventing multiple attacks and saving innocent lives.” He also trumpeted internal safeguards that take “privacy concerns into account in our policies and procedures.”
When pushed to substantiate these claims though, pundits, analysts, and politicians all respond with some version of the same refrain: Without domestic surveillance, the US risks another 9/11.
But if total security comes at the cost of liberty, then another 9/11 is a price worth paying. Republics exist not to enforce safety but to foster freedom. By design, limited government can never provide the security imposed by omnipresent tyranny. And it shouldn’t try.
Total security requires herculean public efforts that are anathema to free society. Of course the state must look to the safety of its citizens, but only after addressing the security of their liberty. Sacrificing freedom to mitigate risk undermines the entire framework of republican government. To enjoy individual rights, one inevitably accepts a certain risks. Freedom is inherently dangerous.
Philosophical considerations aside, the program is still far from a silver bullet in the War on Terror. Its efficacy comes under fire almost as much as its legitimacy. The NSA’s vast web of warrantless wiretaps and internet bugs didn’t stop the Fort Hood terrorist attack or the Boston Bombing. And how could it? When 900 individuals daily enter the National Counterterrorism watchlist, how can agents and analysts keep up?
Attempts at omniscience set an unrealistic expectation for the intelligence community and put lives at risk. Struggling through a swamp of irrelevant data collected from innocent Americans, analysts regularly lose track of solid leads.
They don’t need more information. They need better intelligence. Rather than vacuuming up the data of innocent millions, they need to pinpoint facts on a guilty few.
This domestic spying program undermines our most basic civil right, reducing citizens to tenants of their own thoughts. Under threat of unwanted observation, individuals act unnaturally. Thus, this government voyeurism fundamentally corrupts individual liberty making free discourse, that cornerstone of democracy, impossible.
In an evolving world increasingly unfriendly to democracy, our republic requires both liberty and security. Luckily there’s an amendment for that.
The Fourth Amendment establishes clear standards for state intervention in private lives. The prohibition of “unreasonable searches and seizures” along with a return to the standard of “probable cause” emancipates the individual from unwanted government interference. In short, it makes freedom possible.
More than some gimmick, the Fourth Amendment actually works. For two centuries, the law protected liberty while preserving security. It can do so again today. A return to the Constitution would throw a lifeline to beleaguered intelligence agents. With clear criteria for wrongdoing, law enforcement could escape a marsh of misinformation.
FBI-agent-turned-ACLU attorney Michael German argues that the Fourth Amendment doesn’t hinder law enforcement. It helps them. “These standards actually assisted me as an investigator,” German explains, “because they forced me to focus on the right people for the right reasons, to follow evidence rather than flawed hunches or profiles.”
For centuries, this Constitutional safeguard barred the state from entering private homes, rifling through personal records, and running the lives of its citizens. In the information age, it’s time to enforce that same standard. Our generation needs to block Big Brother online by abolishing the NSA’s domestic spying program.