Discussion of the continued expansion of the “Big Brother” surveillance apparatus in the United States in recent years has been notably absent during the presidential debates, raising concern among journalists, politicians and privacy rights activists that candidates aren’t being pressed or even queried on what they see as a continuing erosion of civil liberties in the country.
Debate questions, drafted primarily by undecided voters and chosen by moderators, have instead centered largely around China and the Middle East, reproductive and religious rights and the government’s role in the economic recovery.
President Barack Obama briefly referred on Tuesday evening to China’s surveillance of its own citizens. The president did not mention, however, that warrantless domestic electronic spying by the Justice Department skyrocketed during the first two years of his administration.
There was also no mention of what critics have called the Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers, or its transparency record. There are, for example, several current lawsuits against the Obama administration over its domestic surveillance activities. Former NSA employees have even come forward to provide testimony against the government about how, exactly, the agency spies on Americans.
An AP-National Constitution Center poll taken in August found that a third of Americans are concerned with how technologies like social networks, domestic unmanned aerial drones and GPS location tracking could contribute to a loss of personal privacy.
Washington’s inability to keep pace with the speed of technological innovation, however, has also left Americans without adequate legal protections against government intrusions into privacy, according to privacy activists.
“The law governing email is older than the World Wide Web itself,” said Trevor Timm, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, referring to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. The World Wide Web was first successfully tested in 1990.
The FBI is pushing for eavesdropping backdoors to be built into social networks, and the intelligence community actively monitors social networks in order to gather information and counter what it views as threats to national security.
Yet, questions regarding these and other issues — such as Internet freedom, the militarization of local police forces, indefinite detention and the president’s secret “kill list” — have not been posed to the major candidates during any debate this year.
Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel for the ACLU, told The Daily Caller that “there needs to be a place for the public to be informed of these issues, to be informed of where the administration is.”
Anders noted that there was a bipartisan effort in Congress to obtain the legal memos “supporting the targeted killing program directed at American citizens.” Anders added that, while some members of Congress oppose the program, people have a right to know how to stay off that list.
“The president has not had to in a meaningful way defend the erosion of civil liberties and constitutional rights, and voters have very little idea of what these two candidates are planning to do in the future,” Anders said.
Anders attributed what he said was the ballooning of the national security surveillance state during the past four years — which activists say currently exists in the U.S. through corporate and government cooperation — to the “huge industrial complex built around these security technologies, and businesses that have big interests in keeping the country hooked on surveillance and war technologies.”
But digital civil liberties advocates are not convinced Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney would offer a change from Obama in this regard.
“President Obama’s dismal record on civil liberties would leave him open to harsh criticism if only he had an opponent who cares about free speech, due process and privacy,” Sue Udry, Executive Director of the Defending Dissent Foundation, told TheDC in an email.
“Instead, we’re inclined to believe that Mr. Romney is eager to take the helm of an executive branch that has acquired unprecedented authorities and vast powers of surveillance, detention, and even extrajudicial murder … all cloaked in secrecy,” she said.
Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson expressed similar concerns to TheDC.
“It is not surprising that civil liberties have not been getting any attention in the debates,because there is virtually no disagreement between President Obama and Governor Romney on those issues,” Johnson said.
“They both support the Patriot Act. Neither has questioned the creation of the TSA, or even the Department of Homeland Security,” he said. “And on issues of electronic surveillance, indefinite detention, or privacy, there is no daylight between the Republican and the Democrat.”
“So, why bother to debate one another. What is needed is another voice in the debates who actually disagrees with them on civil liberties,” he said.
Johnson is currently involved in a lawsuit against the Commission on Presidential Debates — the organizing body of the presidential and vice presidential debates — for excluding him from the presidential debates.
Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul said in a recent interview with CNBC that he did not believe that there was a tremendous difference between Romney and Obama on foreign policy or the Middle East.
Obama also lost supporters who feared the unintended consequences of the indefinite detention provision of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, popularly called NDAA.
Anders noted that strong opposition to NDAA was expressed by conservatives and members of the tea party, as well.
Even some journalists have been critical of the indefinite detention provision of the NDAA, fearing that they might be categorized as terrorists or terrorist accomplices by attempting to protect sources who are of national security interest to the government.
Similarly, opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, was sparked over fears that the bill could be used as a way to censor the Internet.
The third and final presidential debate is scheduled for October 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida.
The pre-released debate topics include “America’s role in the world,” “Our longest war – Afghanistan and Pakistan,” “Red Lines – Israel and Iran,” “The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism” — to be discussed in two parts — and “The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World.”