Privacy too often sacrificed in the name of “security”

By Jason Roche

jonathan mcintosh/Flickr

Fear no more: over the course of the next year, the federal government will be introducing a wide range of new surveillance policies, techniques and hardware designed to identify and prosecute everyone who means you harm. The Department of Homeland Security released documents on Tuesday showing that the agency had labeled Occupy Wall Street protesters as potential domestic terrorists and was spying on activists involved in the movement.  Over the course of the next six months, government agencies will be expanding their ability to monitor and disrupt such terrorist activities. The FBI will be seeking to expand its ability to monitor online communications, the National Security Agency will be unveiling a massive new surveillance center and domestic drones will continue their ascent into the airways.

The American people have been told by government officials that their lives are constantly threatened by foreign and domestic terrorists. To protect our way of life, the government has dramatically expanded its surveillance of the American public and the world at large. The line of logic is simple enough to follow: if the actions and communications of every person are constantly monitored, then this information can be used to expose suspicious behavior. This evidence can then be used to identify individuals deemed to be threats and prevent them from potentially committing a crime.

The idea behind this type of security is not new. In George Orwell’s book “1984,” published in 1949, the government very effectively monitors its entire populace and prosecutes individuals labeled as threats to society. However, in the real world, until recently there has not existed technology capable of constantly monitoring everyone’s every action. The technology we possess today puts Orwell’s depictions to shame.

The rise of the digital age has made mass surveillance easily accomplished. Never mind the cameras placed all around city streets or the domestic drones that will soon be buzzing overhead: the devices we use every day make it easy for authorities to listen in on and archive all forms of communication, whether it be phone calls or text messages, emails or Skype chats. Our cell phones track our every movement and are even capable of recording us when they are turned off. The words we type into search engines and the pages we visit are all archived, along with all of our purchases and donations.

Despite this grand ability to keep everybody under surveillance at all times, terrorist acts are not easy to detect. After all, Americans are more than three times more likely to be struck by lightning (1 in 1,000,000), than to be victims of a terrorist attack (1 in 3,500,000).

To address this, the National Security Agency is working to make it easier to identify people as threats. It is in the process of constructing a $2 billion center that will become operational in September of this year. The center will feature the world’s most powerful supercomputer and largest storage database, which will capture, organize and store all of the world’s communications.

This mind-boggling advancement in surveillance technology will be creating in-depth profiles of the private lives of every single American. Some may let out a sigh of relief; now that the government can finally monitor everything we do and capture the bad guys who want to hurt us. However, Christopher Slobogin voices concern in his book “Privacy at Risk,” writing, “While surveillance can be a valuable law enforcement tool, it also poses a significant threat to our legitimate freedoms — to express what we believe, to do what we want to do, to be the type of person we really are. In short, it can diminish our privacy and autonomy.”

Government surveillance is certainly not a new phenomenon. Domestic surveillance began to be prominently utilized during the 1950s and 60s as advancing technology allowed for greater spying abilities. Its primary targets were grave threats to America such as peace activists, political dissidents and civil rights leaders. Martin Luther King in particular was subject to extensive surveillance, and the FBI used facts about his sex life to discredit his image. In his 1976 book “The American Police State,” David Wise writes, “It (the FBI) decided which groups were legitimate, and which were a danger-by FBI standards-to the Republic. It took sides in the social and political conflicts of the fifties and sixties, deciding, for example, that those who opposed the war in Vietnam, or whose skin was black, should be targets of FBI attention. Since the FBI acted secretly, it distorted the normal political process by covertly acting against certain groups and individuals.” The FBI was looking out for Americans’ security by gathering evidence of petty crimes and vices that could be used to arrest or discredit civil rights and peace activists. These individuals were labeled as communists trying to destroy the American way of life.

The very same type of surveillance that was used against political activists of the 60s is now being used against every single American today, and has been justified by the same claim of threats to our security. As James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1798, “Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger real or pretended from abroad.” Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the threat of terrorism, real or pretended, has been used to justify massive infringement upon our liberty in the name of security.

Many Americans have acquiesced to this massive loss of liberty, finding solace in the promise that they are more secure from potential threats. But as our liberties continue to be limited in the name of security, we must seriously consider whether this is a trade we are interested in making. Dwight Eisenhower once said, “If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking… is freedom.” Life is a risky venture: complete security is not possible and the only way to attempt it is to restrict the way people live their lives. It is time to look past the false promises of security and stay committed to protecting personal freedoms.

Jason Roche is a Collegian contributor. He can be reached at [email protected]