America: Land of the Unfree

Conjure an image of ninth graders, fourteen-year-olds who have just barely entered high school, putting tape over their laptop webcams in an effort to thwart U.S. government spies. When I was in ninth grade, this trend was all the rage. Many of us feared that the FBI agent “personally assigned” to us would snitch on us for going on Facebook during class. Most students did this as a joke, but some of my slightly less-informed peers surmised that the government could – and would even bother to – watch them through their laptops.

Of course, this is just an example of silly teenagers with unsubstantiated fears about the growth of the modern surveillance state, right?

My friends and I laughed as we sarcastically protected ourselves from the long shadow of federal agencies, but I don’t laugh about it as much anymore. That faux paranoia, that fear of being watched every hour of every day, is not far from being real. It hasn’t been for years. The sweeping, infamous PATRIOT Act that increased federal surveillance powers is repeatedly renewed with bipartisan support. The National Security Agency (NSA) bullies and colludes with technology companies to hand over our supposedly private data in bulk. Immigrants and terror suspects can be held indefinitely without trial. Secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts grant warrants to law enforcement ad nauseum. And the FBI doesn’t even need a warrant anymore to search telephone, email, and financial records.

National security experts support these broad information-gathering programs. For instance, Glenn Sulmasy, a well-respected national security expert, argues in an opinion piece for CNN that our country, the executive branch especially, needs to flex its surveillance muscles. Sulmasy and other pundits believe that these actions are not government overreach, and that the government should do whatever it takes to keep us safe, even if it costs us some our constitutional privileges. He asserts that: “the current threat by al-Qaeda and jihadists is one that requires aggressive intelligence collection and efforts.”

I beg to differ.

Our country needs smart, focused surveillance that also respects the rights of Americans – not just more surveillance. The anxiety over being spied on shows that the omnipresent surveillance state is already too expansive. The unfettered surveillance of the public by the U.S. government is oppressive, dangerously ineffective, and sets a disturbing precedent.

Much of the current surveillance state we live under arose out of the ashes of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. The PATRIOT Act, a wide-ranging collection of surveillance programs and authorizations, passed both chambers of the legislature with barely a whimper from the mere sheep in Congress opposing the wolf of a bill. Despite a Justice Department review in 2004 declaring parts of the law to be unconstitutional, President Bush re-authorized it anyway. When top department personnel threatened to resign, Bush backed down, but court orders in 2007 later re-authorized those aspects of the law.

The NSA has conducted programs that collect metadata on telephones and activities on the Internet for years. Starting in 2007 and ending in 2011, the internet metadata program called PRISM collected a great deal of specific information on an individual’s actions online. As reported by ProPublica, this information included “emails, Facebook chats, websites visited, Google Maps searches, transmitted files, photographs, and documents of different kinds.” If they have your telephone metadata, “the NSA would have a record of your entire address book, or at least every person you’ve called in the last several years. They can surmise who you are close to by how often you call someone and when. By correlating the information from multiple people, they perform ‘network analysis’ of communities of many different kinds, personal or professional.”

Sadly, the only things folks at the NSA would see is just how much I lean on Wikipedia for my schoolwork, but these programs are dangerous because of their potential to be exploited. With all of this information, the government can profile individuals and members of any group, and possibly target them for persecution. The larger concern is that phone and internet data will be “correlated with other types of data, such as social media posts, local police records, and credit card information.” With this knowledge, law enforcement and government agencies can track citizens’ daily movements, their behavior, and even their purchases. Regardless of its legality, this kind of surveillance is too oppressive – it intrudes into our personal lives far too much.

Many readers may believe that if we have nothing to hide, we should have nothing to fear. This seems reasonable at first. I even used to think that I didn’t have to worry about what I did online and over the phone, since I’m not a terrorist or The Godfather’s Michael Corleone. But we shouldn’t expect to lose as much privacy as we do. Security expert Daniel Gallington, of U.S. News & World Report, believes that we should target dangerous actors for monitoring, but that the rest of us have to give up some privacy in the process. He asks, “Do all of us, including the spies, terrorists and kidnappers among us, have a reasonable expectation of privacy when we use the Internet today?” Few think that terrorists should have the same level of privacy as everyday citizens, but innocent civilians should not be unfairly targeted by intelligence agencies.

Unfortunately, innocent people are targeted. While federal law prohibits law enforcement from discriminating by race or ethnicity, Justice Department guidelines “include broad exemptions for national security and border integrity investigations, and it did not prohibit profiling based on religion or national origin.” One woman, Zainab Merchant – a Muslim U.S. citizen, Harvard graduate student, and CEO of her own multimedia company – has been the victim of this profiling. An article from the Huffington Post describes some of the actions taken against her. A legal complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) “details at least 10 times she was subject to excessive searches by airport officials upon entering an airport, at a gate in front of other passengers and even during layovers.” On one occasion, Merchant was prodded into a private screening and forced to show TSA agents her underwear. The TSA had even gone so far to call in an explosives search team despite being cleared by security minutes before. Federal agents have also asked her about her religious affiliation and her criticism of U.S. policies on her website. Merchant has tried to find out if she was on a federal watch-list, but was told that the Department of Homeland Security could “neither confirm nor deny” this. Evidently, the federal government is willing to harass a successful U.S. citizen with no terrorist ties because of either her political views or her religious affiliation.

In addition to guidelines that let law enforcement target based on religion or race, President Bush’s Attorney General Michael Mukasey also created ones that “explicitly authorize the surveillance and infiltration of peaceful advocacy groups in advance of demonstrations.” These powers have potential to be abused and suppress political opponents and voices of dissent. The FBI has monitored advocacy groups in recent years, despite them having no relationship to terrorism or criminal activity. Lawsuits filed from 2004 to 2006 under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) revealed that the FBI “collected information about peaceful political activity of… prominent advocacy organizations such as the School of the America’s Watch, Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Colorado, and the Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Justice in Pennsylvania, among many others.” The commentary provided by FBI agents in reports offers an insight into how politically biased the investigations were. One agent describes the “peace group Catholic Worker as having ‘semi-communistic ideology’ and another stated that attendees at an activist camp “dressed like hippies” and “smelled of bad odor.”

Now, I don’t want to hang out with foul-smelling hippies either, but that doesn’t make them viable candidates for FBI monitoring. In a world where social media, the Internet, and other technology is used to organize protests and opposition to government practices, it is imperative that government practices be kept in check, lest they be used to silence and harass peaceful citizens such as Zainab Merchant.

Despite all of these abuses and infringements of the civil liberties of Americans, there will always be experts, citizens, and politicians who believe that national security, especially with the dangers of modern terrorism, require us to give up our privacy. Sulmasy, like a gambling addict anteing up without inhibition, casually suggests that “terror will necessarily require, by accident or purposefully, collections of U.S. citizens’ conversations.” This encourages the systematic shaving down of our fundamental rights. The Constitution’s Fourth Amendment establishes “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” The Fourth Amendment is part of the foundation of our country and its laws. Numerous violations including repeated and unsubstantiated searches of Muslim-Americans, unwarranted FBI surveillance of peaceful advocacy groups, and the bulk data collection of our private phone and internet records all pose a threat to our long-term freedoms. Many politicians, experts, and citizens are okay with relinquishing some of their basic rights for some semblance of safety. That is understandable: the world is a scary place, and people want to feel comfortable and let others protect them. It is difficult to change this mindset. However, there is one final counter to the supporters of our current surveillance state.

It doesn’t work.

That statement sounds ridiculous out of context. How could federal agencies, with all the funding and information in world fail to identify and stop terror threats? The answer is simple: information overload.

There is simply too much information being collected on millions of people for it to be utilized effectively. As the Washington Post’s Matthew Guariglia asserts, “an intelligence system that is overextended is also ineffective and dangerous.” He asserts that too much surveillance takes the focus away from real, credible threats detected by intelligence agencies. After the terrorist attacks in Boston and Orlando, authorities were knowledgeable about the perpetrators for months or even years before the attacks.

Even the terror watch list is as cluttered as a college student’s dorm room. According to an audit by the Inspector General of the Justice Department, the “terror watchlist database continues to increase by an average of over 20,000 records per month and contained over 700,000 records as of April 2007.” That list’s growth isn’t slowing down anytime soon, and has swept up innocent civilians for monitoring and placement on the no-fly list in the process. This massive collection of information didn’t help us catch Omar Mateen or the Tsarnaev brothers, and it will continue to endanger us. It’s frightening when the massive surveillance conducted infringes on our constitutional rights; it’s made even scarier by the fact that it doesn’t even make us safer.

In their altruistic attempts to make citizens safer, governments will go to any length with new advancements. That doesn’t mean improvement in the sense of efficiency or fairness in choosing who is monitored, however. The Chinese government, considered among the more repressive regimes in the world, is utilizing “advances in artificial intelligence and data mining and storage to construct detailed profiles on all citizens, developing a ‘citizen score’ to incentivize ‘good’ behavior. A vast accompanying network of surveillance cameras will constantly monitor citizens’ movements, purportedly to reduce crime and terrorism.” The communist government of China is “beginning to develop comprehensive, constantly updated, and granular records on each citizen’s political persuasions, comments, associations, and even consumer habits.” This is an unprecedented intrusion into people’s daily lives. We are blessed to not live under this kind of Orwellian shadow, but it reveals that technology can collect more and more information on us as it advances. China’s path is an extreme one, and while it’s unlikely at least right now for this weed to sprout up in America, it just goes to show how far a government will go to advance its own interests. If this doesn’t scare even the most hawkish lawmaker or voter, I don’t know what will.

The Fourth Amendment – our right to reasonable privacy – is one of the most important rights we have in the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights was designed to give citizens the power to resist and combat the government if necessary, especially through the First, Second, and Fourth Amendments. The First Amendment allows us to publicly criticize government actions we oppose; the Second allows us to defend ourselves against tyranny; the Fourth allows us to exercise these rights without fear of arrest or legal repercussions. Once the Fourth Amendment is scratched off the Constitution, the floodgates open. Without the right to privacy, the government can intimidate those who speak out against it and take away our power to rebel if  necessary. The Fourth Amendment keeps us between being empowered and being squashed like a bug.

David Hume, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, said “It is seldom that liberty is lost all at once.” As we lose bits and pieces of our privacy, online or otherwise, we will lose all of our liberty. Our rights are being stripped away, and as a country, we need to hold our government in check before it’s too late.

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