Since the 9/11 airline hijackings and subsequent deaths we have seen a significant change in people’s willingness to give up freedoms for security. We have been warned over and over again how dangerous and elusive this threat is. Two huge new agencies were created; The Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Agency. The TSA was “created to strengthen the security of the nation’s transportation systems and ensure the freedom of movement for people and commerce.” The DHS combined 22 pre-existing federal agencies under one umbrella with the mission “to secure the nation from the many threats we face.”
And so it began. We have sent military troops into Iraq and Afghanistan to fight “the war on terror”. Only one problem, this country is not actually “at war”. You see, to be at war requires Congress to officially declare war on a nation. Prior to the propaganda of “the war on drugs”, the word “war” had a real meaning in government. In fact, that is why the U.S. was technically never “at war” with North Korea. It was a “police action” involving the U.N. Therefore, it didn’t need the approval of Congress or a formal declaration of war.
But I digress. The point I wanted to make is that the U.S. Is not at war. The reason I make this point is that the government has been excusing many of it’s constitutional transgressions based on congressional war powers because we’re “at war” with “terrorists”. But “terrorists” are really just criminals. It is a crime to kill one person and it is a crime to kill 100 people. Why you kill is irrelevant. Murder is illegal and assault is illegal.
So, let’s focus on the controversy at hand. Why does it matter if the NSA or other government organization monitors my phone calls and e-mails? The first objection many folks will point out is that it’s impossible to have enough people listening to all of those conversations and reading all those e-mails. And, even if it were possible, who cares? Let them listen to me talk to my mom about the weather or my friends about what we are going to do Saturday night or connect me to my YouTube page where I show off my trip to the State Capital building. I’m not doing anything illegal and I have nothing to hide.
Here’s the trick. The monitoring is done en masse by automated software applications such as NarusInsight. There has been a great deal of work done on mass processing of data to search for “intent”. This means that computers listen to the phone calls and read the e-mails, not people. Now, off-hand, that might sound pretty good, and legal. After all, nobody is being “targeted” because all communications are processed. No individual people or government employees are actually listening in or reading the communications so it doesn’t seem to run afoul of privacy. After all, is your privacy really being invaded if it’s an automated computer program reading your e-mail and listening in on your conversations? Well, yes, it is.
Here’s a question you should be asking yourself. What, exactly, is the system looking for? Remember a computer program is only as smart as the programmer and only looks for what it’s told to look for. So, what does our government think a potential terrorist looks like? Well, the DHS has a document that lists 7 suspicious activities. I take issue with 4 of the 7:
- Surveillance – “Someone recording or monitoring activities”. So, that’s pretty much everyone with a smart phone or recording their family vacation.
- Elicitation – “People or organizations attempting to gain information about military operations, capabilities, or people”. So, that would be any conscientious objector to war because they tend to be the ones who most want to know what’s going on in order to have an idea of when it can end.
- Acquiring Supplies – “Purchasing or stealing explosives, weapons, ammunition, etc.” So, purchasing weapons and ammunition is a sign of terrorism. Of course, the fact that we have a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms and a large number of recreational hunters wouldn’t be a problem.
- Suspicious persons out of place – “People who don’t seem to belong in the workplace, neighborhood, business establishment, or anywhere else.” Yeah, that’s not vague. So, basically, if you’re a minority, you might not “seem” to belong in a certain neighborhood or business establishment. Because, of course, if someone doesn’t look like you, they might be a terrorist.
The problem that I am trying to point out is this. There is really no way to know in advance if someone is going to commit a crime unless they tell you. We have automated programs labeling individuals as “possible” terrorists and anyone suspected of terrorism can be treated as a military combatant. This means you can lose all of the basic protections that are the cornerstone of the American legal system. We still have many people held on terrorism charges who have not been tried after years of confinement. That’s not how this country’s legal system is supposed to work. If a terrorism “suspect” does not have legal protection and the above extremely vague indicators could mark you as a terrorism “suspect” then we have a defacto system that allows the abduction, confinement, or execution of nearly anyone for any reason.
So what do you have to hide? In a system that is beginning to lean guilty until proven innocent you may have more to hide than you think. If nothing else, if random, circumstantial evidence is available at the push of a button then we are increasing the chance of false positives in the system. That’s a much larger problem when you aren’t guaranteed a timely trial or other protections afforded by the constitution. It’s important for our country to re-focus on the fundamentals of small government, a small military for defense, and freedom above all. It’s important that we not have secret laws or secret interpretations of laws. It’s important that we remember that our government must follow the same laws that we are required to follow. That’s what government by the people and for the people is about. No amount of totalitarian monitoring and enforcement can keep us safe. Giving up our privacy and freedoms for the perception of safety is a poor choice. This is the home of the brave and the free. It is not the home of the scared and the enslaved.