The revelations of Edward Snowden regarding the vast electronic snooping being conducted by the US National Security Agency (NSA) have engendered fierce debates among Americans of all political persuasions.
Depending upon one’s point of view, Snowden is either a traitor or a hero. The New York Times said NSA data-mining “fundamentally shifts power between the individual and the state” and “repudiates constitutional principles governing search, seizure and privacy.” The Wall Street Journal retorted that ending such activities could lead to more terrorist attacks and “far greater intrusions” on freedom.
Snowden gave information to the Guardian and the Washington Post about a secret program of spying on Americans’ internet activity known as PRISM. PRISM is a covert collaboration among the NSA, the FBI, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, You Tube, Skype, Apple and others. It has been monitoring the internet activity of Americans since 2007. In addition, the NSA has been secretly collecting the phone records of millions of US Verizon customers and quite possibly customers of other communications carriers as well.
These revelations are downright scary. When did I give up my privacy rights? What happened to the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees the people’s right to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures?”
Snowden told the Guardian that as an NSA contractor he “had the authority to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the President, if I had a personal email.”
What the NSA and its contractors are doing goes far beyond innocuous technical exercises with adequate safeguards. However efficient, effective and convenient these data sweeps may be, they are also, on their face, far beyond the limits set by the Fourth Amendment.
We have been repeatedly assured by President Obama and others that any personal data accidentally scooped up by these agencies are discarded, and that no one is listening to the content of our private calls, emails and online sessions. But the lessons of history are very clear: Any government with absolute power will one day use that power.
Remember what George Orwell said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” People should never have to fear their government; government should fear the people.
How have we gotten to this point? Why did Americans agree to give up their privacy rights and rights against unreasonable search and seizure? My best guess is that the US was turned into an Orwellian dystopia after the government whipped the public into a frenzy of fear after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Are Americans getting any benefit to offset the surrender of their freedoms? Defenders of the program have asserted that PRISM has stopped numerous terrorist attacks. Where is the evidence of this?
Freedom has always come with a price, and sometimes that price is very high. Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Whatever Snowden’s place in history proves to be, I think he has already performed a national service by sparking a long overdue conversation about the freedoms that are supposed to reside at the heart of the United States of America.
If given the choice of knowing or not knowing what my government is up to, I want to know. I recall an old Nigerian saying: “Not to know is bad. Not to want to know is worse. Not to hope is unthinkable. Not to care is unforgivable.”