photo by Adam James on Flickr
I am sitting on an airplane as I type these words, flying from New York to Florida. When my plane touches down, I will text my wife to let her know I have arrived safely.
I assume the spooks at the National Security Agency will also get the message.
They may not see my words - though if anyone out there is interested, I usually write something like, “Landed. Love you.” It might take 24 hours or so before AT&T, my cell carrier, turns over the pile of “metadata” that will include the fact I sent a text, the number I sent it from and the one I sent it to, where I was when I sent it and whether I attached any files. If I phone my wife instead from our neighborhood Publix, the spies will know that, too.
It’s a matter of national security. Or so I presume.
I can only make educated guesses at these details. I am not a Verizon customer, so the disclosure this week that the government is Hoovering vast amounts of data about millions of Verizon clients does not, strictly speaking, apply to me. But simple common sense dictates otherwise. Unless the community of global terrorists maintains a Verizon family plan and does all its business there, the feds are just as interested in customers of AT&T and other carriers as they are in the communication patterns of Verizon users.
It’s just that the press has not yet uncovered the secret court orders through which the FBI, which apparently is acting as the NSA's letter carrier in this endeavor, has in all likelihood commanded other carriers to turn over this data as well. Those same court orders prohibit the carriers, and anyone else who has knowledge of this operation, from breathing an unclassified word of its existence.
Perhaps it is not such a big surprise that it was the Guardian, a British news organization, that broke the blockbuster story yesterday in London. (It was Wednesday night here in the States.) It is ironic, though. If this same surveillance had been conducted by Britain's MI6 foreign service against the Queen’s subjects, chances are that Her Majesty’s government could have suppressed the news by invoking its Official Secrets Act. Here in the land of the First Amendment, we don't have an Official Secrets Act - but we have official secrets galore. The fact that this massive data-mining exercise, potentially affecting everyone in America, is one of those secrets says something about how easily power wielded in our name can be turned against us.
I am not a privacy die-hard. I understand that future terrorists do not advertise themselves as such. Time and again, somebody we never heard of emerges from the shadows only after doing something terrible, at which point law enforcement has to work backwards to find all the other shadowy figures who may have been involved. Having a database with all communication logged and cross-referenced makes this much easier or, perhaps, possible at all.
But this information can also be easily misused - and, humans being only human, that misuse is just a matter of time. A political adversary sends his wife an “I love you” message from the friendly confines of a brothel. A White House insider has unauthorized contact with a reporter who publishes embarrassing information. A couple of CEOs send a flurry of text messages shortly before a high-stakes merger is announced.
Maybe the fight against terrorism makes it worth risking that such information will be abused. Maybe it doesn’t. That's a debate that all of us can have, as a society. But the power to have that debate was stolen from us by government officials, beginning in the prior administration and continuing through the current one, who invoked Section 215 of the Patriot Act to keep their massive surveillance of you and me under wraps until the Guardian pulled off the tarp.
Did we suddenly get less safe after this disclosure? Not as far as I can see. Terrorists were already well aware that our spy agencies monitor their communications. We certainly hear enough about “chatter” or the lack thereof any time awareness is heightened. The only people who did not know the feds wanted to see a record of everyone they called, every text they sent, every email they received and every web site they visited, were the 310 million or so of us who have nothing to do with terrorism.
The White House senses another major headache brewing. President Obama’s minions wasted little time yesterday issuing a statement justifying the data mining on national security grounds and noting - irrelevantly - that the actual content of our messages is not being monitored. At least as far as they are willing to tell us.
The question is not whether the government should collect this data; it is who gets to decide whether the benefits outweigh the risks to our privacy, and even to our ability to object to official policy without being subject to potential blackmail. The administration claims it alone should have this power, acting in secret, supervised only by a secret national security court that apparently never says no and by a few select members of Congress who are themselves sworn to secrecy.
“Trust us,” is their message. But they don’t trust us. If they did, they would respect our right to collectively decide, through the political process, how much privacy we are willing to sacrifice in the name of security.
I’ll go first. Here’s my message: Landed. Love you.