They're watching!

eye

Of course, it's for your security

The FBI and the attorney general have requested that major internet and telephone companies keep records of all internet traffic for two years — every email you send and who you send it to, every website you visit. (See LA Times story, 2-Jun-06.) The request was accompanied by a thinly veiled threat that if the companies did not comply "voluntarily," legislation would be enacted to compel them to.

This is just the latest move in an unprecedented attempt by the government to secretly put every US citizen under surveillance.

• Not long ago we found out that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been secretly monitoring (aka "wiretapping") telephone calls without a warrant.

• Then we learned that they have been busily compiling a vast database containing records (who called whom, when, and for how long) of every phone call made. Apparently only Qwest resisted, tepid statements by some of the others notwithstanding.

• Recently the government tried to get Google to turn over records of searches on the internet. Google resisted.

Now, this attempt to grab records of email correspondence and website visits. (And did you know that the US Postal Service has been investigating "intelligent mail" services that would allow tracking of mail and its senders through bar codes and embedded digital imprints?)

Whenever the obvious concerns about privacy are raised, the government's response is "Trust us, we're only doing it to protect you {against terrorism, against kiddie porn, against ...}."

If Al-Qaeda is calling, we want to know why is one of W's favorite lines. And that's hard to argue against. The problem comes with the enormous potential for abuse of this information, especially when the programs are shrouded in secrecy without legislative or judicial oversight, as they are.

For example, Brian Ross, ABC News' senior investigative reporter was told by "a senior federal law enforcement official" that the numbers he and another reporter calls are being tracked to identify their confidential sources. "'It's time for you to get some new cell phones, quick', the source told us in an in-person conversation" (blogs.abcnews.com).

This is the stuff of police states, where rights are trampled upon and where spies are everywhere and everyone is always a suspect. We have constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, the right to a speedy trial and due process. These rights and freedoms are under assault by an over-reaching, secretive, arrogant, power-grabbing administration.

But here's what scares me even more than the government: a lot of people think this is all fine and dandy! If you doubt that, read the follow-up comments posted to Brian Ross' blog. A sampling:

  • "I believe that it is a great idea to maintain telephone surveilance over news organizations who disclose classified and sensitive secret information."
  • "Excellent the Media needs looking after, Traitors most of them..."
  • "I am tired of the news media leaking secret information in order to hurt PREDIDENT BUSH."
  • "Personally, as I don't call anyone associated with Al Qaeda, I don't CARE if the Government tracks me, listens to me or records me. Only the guilty should be nervous."

To be sure, there are many comments from people who are appalled and outraged. But what is scary is how many people do not "get" the principles that are at stake and do not recognize that while they believe themselves innocent with nothing to hide, there is no assurance that others will share that same assumption. "I'm OK, so what's the matter with a little loss of your freedom?" That's delusional thinking.

Another thing that's scary is how selective people are about which rights and freedoms they think are worth protecting. There are apparently quite a few who are willing to give up freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the right to privacy. They don't mind if the government tracks their phone calls, but they do mind if the government tracks who has guns. The right to "bear arms" (amendment II) is considered sacrosanct and inviolable, but the right to speak my mind to whomever I please and read whatever news I choose to read (amendment I) is apparently negotiable. That's wrong. (And thanks, Jim, for pointing out this little contradiction.)

There is certainly room for a difference of opinion about what the proper balance is between privacy and liberty on the one hand and security on the other hand. But the problem is we're not even having that debate! We're just sliding on down the slippery slope because lots of people are willing to believe that little infringements are bearable, as long as they are assumed to affect someone else. To borrow a phrase, they "are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable" than to resist and insist that it stop. The Declaration of Independence (see sidebar) recognized that there comes a point when people have to say enough is enough!

Some will probably call me alarmist, but I think we are at that point. It's time to care more about the Constitution and less about American Idol. (And thanks, Carolyn, for pointing out that misplaced priority.)