Yesterday The Washington Post broke the story that the U.S. and British governments are mining data on individuals on an unprecedented scale, with the cooperation of major U.S. internet companies like Facebook and Google. The program is code-named PRISM.
Under PRISM, the government has been given access to mine data directly from the servers of major U.S. service providers, like Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Skype, YouTube and Apple. That means that they have access to the private communications of virtually everyone in the United States, with the exception of guys who live like the Unabomber. Everyone. Yes, that means you.
Of course, this is all done under the guise of “combating terrorism,” that nebulous catch-all for unfettered government surveillance. Who can be against that? Apologists for this broad government overreach will suggest that if you don’t want NSA Joe reading your private emails to your girlfriend, you must somehow love the terrorists. “What’s the big deal if you have nothing to hide?” is the common argument.
The big deal is that civil liberties are important. They were set up at a time when individuals intimately understood how despotic a government could be. The framers understood that the deck would always be stacked in the government’s favor and that we needed rules that would rein in that power. Of course no one could have foreseen the fact that we would one day all live our lives with every detail potentially exposed: trysts and bank accounts and secret search history proclivities.
Perhaps the government acted entirely in good faith in mining this data. Maybe they only targeted “bad guys.” This extensive and unlimited access still sets a dangerous precedent because powers, once seized or granted, are very rarely given up voluntarily. This level of surveillance becomes the status quo so that we are desensitized when the next step is taken. For example, if we all allow this overreach because it targets “foreign terrorists,” who then would object if this were used to track a serial killer? Surely we all want to stop serial killers, right? Then what about someone who murdered one person? Murder is murder, right? What about a rapist? A bank robber? A guy who holds up the local liquor store? Where is the line? Don’t we want to catch them all? What about leaks? Or what about the information being hacked by private investigators looking into things like infidelity and eligibility for employment?
Of course I understand that, due to sheer volume, my emails about soccer games and Tuesday night happy hour arrangements are probably low on the NSA priority list. But the fact that they have access to them at all is troubling. And, frankly, with its history of leaks, the government is not exactly the entity I want having access to my most private information.
What’s terrifying to me that these post-Patriot Act revelations keep happening is not that the government keeps trying to overreach this way (power wants more power, always), but that the public’s reaction is so muted. How can it be that a country full of people who read 1984 in the 8th grade doesn’t take to the streets to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen? That our private information remains private and protected from warrantless intrusion? That probable cause be required and rules be followed and that the government be held to the standard that it needs to make a case against someone before treating him like a criminal?
When we compromise our civil liberties for any reason whatsoever, we become a little less of the “free” we always brag we are.