From birth until death, human beings leave a little trail of surrendered privacy in their wake: birth certificates, marriage licenses, property purchases, letters to the editor, social media posts, traffic tickets, store card purchases and dozens of other activities leave a mark on an individual’s permanent — and often public — record.
The difference between these activities and the massive digital surveillance program revealed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden in recent days is that, in most cases, those breaches of privacy are done knowingly and voluntarily.
We may not choose to have our birth and death certificates made part of the public record, but in almost all of the other examples, we knowingly make a choice that leaves a mark in the world.
Now we learn that the United States government is indiscriminately and in bulk collecting the communication records of its own citizens, regardless of whether they are suspected of wrongdoing.
It has long been suspected and is now official: The United States government is routinely spying on its own citizens without any attempt to prove probable cause.
The Obama Administration has made no attempt to deny the activities, which have reportedly been going on since the Bush Administration under the broad powers granted by the USA PATRIOT Act. Congressional leaders in both parties defend the program as a tool in the fight against terrorism.
House Speaker John Boehner went so far as to declare Snowden a “traitor” on national television, claiming that the disclosure of the information puts Americans at risk.
However, that oft-repeated claim has lost much of its credibility as the Obama Administration has aggressively fought against the public’s right to information about how the people’s government goes about its business. Surveillance of Associated Press phone lines, and heightened prosecution of federal leak sources are two examples.
Looking at this issue from a constitutional standpoint, Snowden might be considered a patriot, rather than a traitor.
Daniel Ellsberg, famed for releasing the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s, said it best in an interview with the Associated Press: “What he was looking at and what he told us about was the form of behavior, the practice of policy that's blatantly unconstitutional. I respect his judgment of having withheld most of what he knows, as an information specialist, on the grounds that its secrecy is legitimate and that the benefit to the American people of knowing it would be outweighed by possible dangers. What he has chosen, on the other hand, to put out, again confirms very good judgment.”
It is long past time that Congress repeal some of the more intrusive aspects of the USA PATRIOT Act, warrantless wiretapping and records seizure among them. Governments have taken far too much power upon themselves in their crusade against terrorism.
We, as citizens, need to send a strong message to our legislators that we want a return to our constitutional protections.
In our present state, we need to ask ourselves how wide the gap is between monitoring private speech and controlling it.