News reports are circulating this morning that the National Security Agency obtained a top secret court order requiring Verizon wireless to turn over millions of customer records on an ongoing, daily basis.
Al Gore called this “obscenely outrageous,” but I don’t think Mr. Gore went far enough. This is beyond obscenely outrageous.
First of all, the Fourth Amendment of our Constitution—the same Constitution that every office holder is sworn to uphold—says that we have the right to be free from unreasonable searches. Search warrants can issue only on a showing of probable cause. That’s the supreme law of the land (although apparently some NSA and FISA court judges have forgotten this). The law requires that the government focus its surveillance on individuals who are under suspicion. Not on every customer of a wireless provider.
Second, obtaining large swaths of data does not help fight the “bad guys.” When there’s more data going into the review system, it’s like making the haystack with the needle into a bigger haystack. It becomes harder to find the proverbial needle. Wholesale monitoring of phone records is not going to make us any safer. It only increases the risk that something noteworthy will escape notice. If you have a weather alert radio in a room full of televisions and radios that are all turned on and making noise, the weather alert is less likely to be noticed.
Third, monitoring citizens is morally wrong. Even those who claim they have nothing to hide misunderstand the problem. When people believe they are being monitored by the authorities, they modify their behavior so as not to attract attention. It’s human nature. In fact, you probably engage in this modification without even realizing it: When you’re on the highway and you see a police car, what’s the first thing you do? That’s right, you check your speedometer—even if you know you’re not over the speed limit. You aren’t doing anything wrong, yet you still don’t want to attract the attention of the officer and risk getting a ticket.
What frustrates me is that I feel powerless. I can blog about my outrage, contact my representatives in Congress to express my outrage, even write to President Obama. But I have no confidence that it will make a darn bit of difference, no matter how many of us do it. What saddens me is that so many of my fellow Americans will just shrug their shoulders and go on. When that happens, we’ve let Big Brother take control. We just don’t realize it yet.