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Nothing To Hide: why you actually should care about NSA spying
One of the biggest and most far-reaching revelations of the week has been the confirmation that the NSA has been collecting and storing vast amounts of data from telephone and internet service providers. The sheer scale and scope of the enterprise is, quite simply, breathtaking. Though most people are (rightfully) infuriated by this brazen intrusion into their personal privacy, some are either defending the program or aren’t sure why it affects them. These are some of the most common points I’ve seen, and my responses.
1.) I have nothing to hide, so I don’t care if the government looks at my data.
Another version of this argument is, “only guilty people have something to hide.” There are two fundamental assumptions behind this: first, that the people seeking information about you have only the best of intentions and cannot (or will not) misuse the data. Secondly, that nothing you do or have ever done could possibly be construed as suspicious by anyone, anywhere.
Here’s an example: let’s say I want to learn more about Salafist jihadism and the roots of its followers’ violence against the United States, as part of a research paper I’m doing. I search for the term “jihad” on Google. Instantly, that search term — along with tons of other data about my Google account, the computer I’m using, where I am in the world, etc. — is sent to the NSA and stored. Guess what? Now I match a pattern of suspicious behavior.
Is this troubling? Sure, but nowhere near as troubling as the fact that the US Government assassinates people based on patterns of behavior. In Pakistan and Yemen, drones fly overhead 24/7, looking for “military-age” males making suspicious movements or gathering in suspicious locations. A drone operator then fires a missile that sometimes kills these “suspected militants” (and they’re called that because the government has no idea who they actually are, it just suspects that they’re terrorists based on their movements), and sometimes kills innocent women and children.
Do I expect to be killed by a drone here in my own country? No, I don’t. What’s far more plausible is that I’ll send someone a Facebook message that says “Are you going to the party in Boston tonight? It’s gonna be the bomb,” and an automated system will place me on a no-fly list. Clearly, we all have information that we’d like to keep private, not because it’s illegal, but because without context, anyone can look suspicious.
2.) We should trust the government to do the right thing. I don’t like being spied on, but it’s necessary to defeat terrorism.
I’m sorry, but if you think the government needs to spy on you, an innocent person, it means that the terrorists have already won. The whole point of terrorism is to manipulate a population into giving up their freedoms and living in fear. I can’t think of a more fear-based response than this.
Many in Obama’s administration (including the President himself) have made statements that this top-secret program is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks, and that it has been successful in doing so in the past. But, as the New York Times said yesterday, their credibility on this is absolutely gone. There are countless documented instances where top-level officials lied about the nature of the NSA’s work. Not misled. Not beat around the bush. Straight up lied. They lied to the public, they lied to the press, and they lied to Congress. How can we possibly believe them now? Going back to the first premise of “I have nothing to hide,” do you really trust these officials to have your best interests at heart?
Moreover, the claim that terrorist plots cannot be foiled without big data analysis is dubious at best. In fact, one of the inventors of social network analysis software testified to Congress that wholesale data mining cannot efficiently identify terror suspects without being predicated on intelligence gathered by humans. In other words, the NSA’s data mining at best will make the FBI’s job easier when there is information gathered by agents in the field. I would argue that the benefits are outweighed by the Constitutional problems with the program. It is a false dichotomy to say that we must choose between privacy and security.
Of course, law enforcement officials want tools that will help them catch criminals more reliably. You know what would help catch drug dealers more efficiently? If the government could barge into your house at any moment, ransack your drawers, and rifle through your pockets. However, the 4th Amendment prevents them from doing that. Our Founding Fathers believed that “it is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent party suffer.” Same deal goes here: I have a reasonable expectation that my email account is private, and to search it without any sort of suspicion that I’m doing something wrong violates the 4th Amendment.
3.) There are safeguards in place to prevent an abuse of the system, and all three branches of government have reviewed it.
Remember, Congress has been lied to repeatedly about the true nature of the NSA’s spying program. In fact, the government created a secret interpretation of the law that is very much different from the spirit of the law that Congress passed. So for example, the way the NSA defines collecting data is “when a human operator physically views the data, and there is a 51% chance it does not belong to an American citizen.” To the average person (and to a normal dictionary,) that doesn’t sound much like collection at all. It sounds more like reviewing information. Technically, if an NSA technician runs a report that includes analysis of your data but not your data itself, it still hasn’t been collected, even though it’s sitting in an NSA database.
While the Obama Administration may say they have safeguards in place, the more we learn about the nature of the doublespeak used and the actual safeguarding mechanisms, the less I’m actually convinced. Again, it boils down to them saying “trust us, everything we’re doing is top-secret and can’t be reviewed for accountability, but we’re doing the right thing.” That’s not how a democratic government works.
Ultimately, I think there are many well-meaning people in government, including in the NSA, who truly want to protect the American people from further attacks. However, in the process they have lost sight of the fact that I, as an American citizen, should not have to sacrifice my rights for the sake of a little more security (how much more security? We don’t know, it’s classified.) It’s not up to me to prove that my Google searches are innocent, or that I’m not doing anything illegal when I call someone. The burden of proof is on the government, and it’s time to shift the power back to the people.
I would urge everyone to contact their elected legislators here and urge that the Patriot Act be repealed, that a full and transparent investigation be opened into the scope of the Federal government’s unconstitutional spying on American citizens, and new laws get passed to further strengthen American’s privacy rights and ability to hold their government accountable.