Let’s cut to the chase: If Big Brother wants you, he’s got you, telephone metadata notwithstanding. This disconcerting fact of modern life has been true more or less since the invention of the camera, the microphone and the tape recorder.
See the excellent German film “The Lives of Others” for details. The Stasi managed to collect vast libraries of gossip and slander against East German citizens entirely without computerized databases. It wasn’t people’s smartphones that betrayed them to the secret police, because they didn’t have any. Mostly it was colleagues, neighbors, friends and family.
Similarly, when J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI wanted to dig the dirt on Martin Luther King, they bugged his hotel rooms and infiltrated his inner circle with hired betrayers. Once the target was chosen, technological wizardry was secondary.
I am moved to these observations by the fact that the Republican National Committee has now joined the Snowdenista left in pretending to be outraged by something they manifestly do not fear.
The same GOP that rationalized torture and cheered the Bush administration’s use of warrantless wiretaps as recently as 2006 now denounces the National Security Agency’s “Section 215” bulk collection of telephone data as “an invasion into the personal lives of American citizens that violates the right of free speech and association afforded by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
Oh, and the Fourth Amendment, too. See, keeping a no-names database of phone numbers called, date, time and duration threatens fundamental privacy rights, although actual wiretapping evidently did not. Never mind that Republicans in Congress approved it.
It’s easy to suspect that for the RNC, it’s all about who’s in the White House. The End.
However, there’s an equivalent amount of exaggeration at the opposite end of the political spectrum. Partly for dramatic effect, people talk about data collection as if it were equivalent to surveillance. Here’s the estimable blogger Digby Parton on the “chilling effect” of NSA data-hoarding:
“It’s the self-censorship, the hesitation, the fear that what you say or write or otherwise express today could be lurking somewhere on what Snowden referred to as your ‘permanent record’ and come back to haunt you in the future. The collection of all this mass data amounts to a government dossier on every individual who has a cellphone or a computer. It’s forcing journalists, teachers and political dissidents to be afraid of doing their jobs and exercising their democratic rights. It’s making average citizens think twice about even doing silly things like search Amazon for pressure cookers or take a look at a controversial website.”
I don’t think Digby herself is afraid for one minute. I know I’m not. Are you?
She adds, “No matter how much you may trust Barack Obama not to abuse that information, it was only a few years ago that a man named Dick Cheney had access to it.”
Oddly enough, that’s pretty much what President Obama had to say in his speech proposing NSA reforms: “Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say: Trust us. We won’t abuse the data we collect. For history has too many examples when that trust has been breached.”
Accordingly, Obama proposed several reforms calculated to make misuse of NSA data more unlikely. He accepted the suggestion of his own commission to take telephone records out of the NSA’s control. Instead, the data would be stored either by the phone companies where it originates or by some third party as yet undefined.
To access that database, NSA would need an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. No intelligence bureaucrat would be able to spy on his ex-wife or your mother-in-law strictly on his own say-so.
The president also proposed adding citizen advocates to the FISA court specifically to defend civil liberties — making that body function less like a grand jury and more like a court of law. He added a presidential directive explicitly forbidding NSA from spying upon domestic political critics.
Obama would also sharply limit the number of people whose records can be searched even with a valid FISA warrant.
Taken together, these are fairly substantial reforms. As a pro-cop liberal, I worry that forcing the NSA to gather data from hither and yon might prove too cumbersome in an emergency. Sometimes, though, perfect efficiency ill accords with democratic values.
Meanwhile, however, the 18th century ain’t coming back. Anybody who imagines that NSA data gathering and cyber-espionage are going away may as well yearn for a world where there are no hostile, anti-democratic powers or mad religious extremists eager to bring down the Great Satan through whatever combination of sabotage and mayhem they can inflict. Indeed, we must pray that our adversaries are as fearful and intimidated by U.S. intelligence agencies as are some of our more imaginative countrymen.
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Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President”. You can e-mail Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.