Over the last month, it’s been revealed that the United States government has been sweeping up unlimited amounts of data on private internet use, e-mail, text messaging, phone calls, and even postal traffic, all without warrants. What’s wrong with that? The most direct, literal answer is that it’s a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which requires the U.S. government to obtain a probable cause warrant from a judge, constrained by a specific time and place, before searching through and seizing a person’s private possessions or papers. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land in the United States, so when our government breezes by the Constitution’s requirements, it’s busting through our highest law to get what it wants.
Why worry about little issues like “legality” when we’re talking about human lives at stake? The immediate answer to this question is that there aren’t really that many lives at stake from terrorist attacks. Any death is sad, but we’re all going to die, and most of us will die from more easily prevented causes. All this massive surveillance is being conducted to stop occasional attacks that pale in comparison to strokes, car accidents and pollution in their danger.
A broader answer to this question is that secret, massive surveillance programs like XKeyscore and PRISM shove aside rule by law and replace it with rule by the discretion of the powerful. To see what that produces, visit the “FBI Vault”, a place where the Federal Bureau of Investigation posts old files that are the subject of frequent Freedom of Information Act requests. You’ll find the rampant use of investigatory and surveillance power in order for questionable purposes.
To see one example, look up the file of the actor Rock Hudson. Mildred Stegall, President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s longtime right-hand assistant, is listed as the source of the request for the FBI’s investigation into Hudson’s sexual activities.
Moving from the 1960s through the 1970s and to the early 1990s, look up the file of John Denver. You’ll find that John Denver was being followed by President Richard Nixon’s administration for appearing at an anti-war rally that was purportedly part of a “Dump Nixon movement.” More recently, C. Boyden Gray, President George H.W. Bush’s lawyer, had used the FBI to uncover information about Denver’s drug habits.
These kind of prurient probes, entirely unrelated to national security, are enabled when the rule of law is replaced by the discretion of powerful people. Human nature has not changed over the last 20 or 40 years. If we allow the collection and warehousing of just about everyone’s private communications — whether it be highly implicating “just metadata” (phone and postal mail) or the entire content of communications (internet-based means) — then the people in power who have the discretion to abuse their power will do so. Think of your favorite president using this power. Now think of your least favorite president using this power. Whether it’s today or tomorrow, the power of unlimited warrantless surveillance will be used to mess around with innocents’ lives. I guarantee it.
P.S. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice it’s already happening.