Freedom vs. Security–the Debate Continues

Posted on June 10, 2013 by

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Spying Freedom National SecurityWe are, I hope, at the beginning stages of a thorough and conscious debate about the nature of government intelligence gathering. There is, and there has always been, a tradeoff between our freedoms and the amount of security we demand. Rarely has the discussion been this open, and as events unfold, it is difficult to know where we, as a nation, might land.

For those paying close attention to the news, none of this is new. I am not going to write a comprehensive summary, but let me fill in some details. Several weeks ago, stories about the Department of Justice using heavy-handed tactics to suppress journalists began to emerge. A Fox News reporter, James Rosen, was named as a co-conspirator in a federal crime for interviewing an intelligence source. The D.O.J. obtained a warrant to search and seize Rosen’s email and other materials. The government’s position has been that these sorts of responses are necessary when national security is involved.

On the heels of this came news about two additional government programs that appear invasive, but are also justified, according to the government, due to national security. First, the National Security Administration subpoenaed phone records from the Verizon company, which holds more than 100 million subscribers in the U.S. The data collected includes calls within the U.S., as well as calls between the U.S. and foreign phone numbers. The government has claimed, thus far, that the content of calls was not being investigated, but only user data like numbers, duration, contacts, etc… Second, the big bomb dropped on Friday, when the existence of another N.S.A. program was leaked. PRISM, as it is called, allows the N.S.A. to collect internet based information, including emails, internet searches, and browser histories from all Americans. We do not know the extent to which the tech giants (Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and Facebook) cooperated with the federal government. On Monday, the man who leaked the existence of PRISM, revealed himself to the Guardian, the U.K. paper at the forefront of these stories. Edward Snowden, a 29 year-old defense contractor, leaked the information out of a sense of duty, he claims, arguing that the government’s ability to collect so much information about anyone, is unsafe and too ripe for abuse.

I struggle with this issue because I understand, to the extent someone not in the intelligence field can understand, how such information might be incredibly useful for our government as it seeks to thwart terrorists. Only fools would assume otherwise. There is little doubt that terrorists have used the internet to organize, communicate, and launch attacks. Our ability to track such information has probably prevented some significant terrorist events, at least on the scale of the recent Boston bombings. I get it.

The downside, naturally, is that while we are empowering our government to collect staggering amounts of data so that we might be safer, the threat to our own liberties and freedoms are too grave to ignore. Living in a free society means, by definition, bad things will happen, and some of them will be awful and they may even involve people I know and love. This is the cost of freedom. As we give away our liberties, and as we allow government to look over our shoulders whenever we are online, might we type with a hint of fear? Though I do my best to honor and respect my government, I also understand the nature of concentrated power combined with the depravity of human nature. Besides, we should have the freedom to criticize, lampoon, and, even, hate our government. Our natural thoughts and feelings would, by definition, be curtailed if we know that all we say and do across the internet is scrutinized, even by an antiseptic algorithm designed only to look for key words.

While it may be paranoid, and I pride myself on my general rationality, I simply do not trust the government to possess this sort of information and to ONLY use it for the sake of national security. Again, I understand how far-fetched this sounds, but what prevents the executive branch from dipping into these data to look for material to discredit or blackmail political rivals and enemies? I understand that there is judicial oversight necessary to get a warrant, but what if a warrant is never desired? What might the government do to stop a journalist from publishing a hot story? What might the government do to destabilize a particularly effective political opponent angling for a presidential run? I know, it sounds silly, and I understand that, but I honestly never believed the IRS would use its power to limit the political impact of ideological opponents. Yet, here we are.

I know, I know, if you aren’t doing anything wrong, there is nothing to worry about, right? Well, that is beside the point. We should not have to live in fear of what the government might know about us or our relatives. If I am in the process of committing a crime, or if the government has probable cause to believe I am going to commit a crime, it can get a warrant and then do the full internet shakedown. I am not willing, though, for the executive branch to collect personal data about me simply for the sake of collecting that data.

I also understand that it is quite possible these activities are constitutional and, thereby, legal. Legal, however, is not the same as prudent or moral. While I could write more, what would be the point when Charles C.W. Cooke has written an editorial that comes so close to how I think about the issue? It is articulate, informed, and appropriately distrustful of too much government power.

Enough from me, what do you all think?

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