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The Real State of the Union: Surveillance and Privacy

If Congress and the public give government surveillance programs their blessing, they will become the new baseline for permissible surveillance. We must decide now whether we want our union to become a surveillance state.

Published: January 28, 2014

Cross­pos­ted from Al Jazeera Amer­ica.

Note: This piece is part of a series in which 30 experts offer straight assess­ments of the state of the nation in the form of brief reports.

The state of the union — more precisely, the state of its citizenry — is watched. In 2013 a string of disclos­ures revealed that the National Secur­ity Agency (NSA) collects and stores digital reams of inform­a­tion about ordin­ary Amer­ic­ans. The NSA’s activ­it­ies include the bulk collec­tion of our tele­phonic metadata and the “incid­ental” but routine collec­tion of our tele­phone and email content.

The scale of collec­tion dwarfs the domestic spying conduc­ted by intel­li­gence agen­cies during the early decades of the Cold War. The infam­ous abuses of that era, includ­ing the target­ing of activ­ists like Martin Luther King Jr. led to laws and policies barring intel­li­gence agen­cies from collect­ing Amer­ic­ans’ inform­a­tion without reason to suspect illegal activ­ity. Those rules were gutted after 9/11, paving the way for today’s surveil­lance.

The govern­ment attempts to reas­sure us by citing its internal over­sight mech­an­isms and the lack of evid­ence (thus far) of will­ful over­reach. But any system that relies so heav­ily on self-poli­cing courts fail­ure. Tech­no­lo­gies have changed since FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s tenure, but human nature has not. Ambi­tion, fear, petti­ness, preju­dice and ideo­lo­gical zeal have led offi­cials to abuse powers far less potent and tempt­ing than those the NSA possesses. The risks are high, and the bene­fits of a drag­net approach are unproven at best.

Nearly half of Amer­ic­ans remain unfazed by NSA surveil­lance, confid­ent that they have noth­ing to hide. But their inno­cence will not protect them against a computer erro­neously flag­ging them as suspi­cious or against a power­ful offi­cial decid­ing that their social or polit­ical views present a threat.

The window of oppor­tun­ity to rein in these activ­it­ies is small and clos­ing. If Congress and the public give their bless­ing to the recently-revealed programs, they will become the new baseline for permiss­ible surveil­lance. We must decide now whether we want our union to become a surveil­lance state.

Photo by White­House.gov.