Hello total information awareness, goodbye freedom

Ira Brodsky Author, "The History & Future of Medical Technology"
Font Size:

Top Democrats and Republicans have finally found something they can agree on: it’s acceptable for the National Security Agency to indiscriminately seize and warehouse U.S. citizens’ phone, Internet, and credit card records. They assure us that the NSA is only collecting metadata, and it’s only to protect us from terrorist attacks.

What could possibly go wrong?

Many of us remember a time when the idea of the U.S. government monitoring everyone’s communications and transactions was unthinkable. That was something that happened in countries such as the Soviet Union and East Germany. Admittedly, the world has changed since then. The totalitarian regimes of yesterday relied on neighbors, classmates, and co-workers to spy on their fellow citizens. We’ve automated the process using computers, the Internet, and gigantic water-cooled data centers.

Many of our leaders insist that wholesale data gathering helps keep us safe. Actually, wholesale data gathering makes us less safe. It’s not the most effective way to detect and prevent terrorist attacks, and it needlessly exposes tens of millions of Americans to new threats.

The best way to discover terrorist plots is to focus on the groups from which terrorists are recruited. Most of today’s terrorists are inspired by an ideology that security experts call radical Islam. Not wanting to offend the peaceful majority of Muslims, government officials prefer to avoid the topic. We see this at work in the NSA, which operates according to the assumption that no group is more likely to produce terrorists than another. However, gathering and analyzing data from the entire U.S. population can distract agencies from following up on specific leads such as Russia’s warning about Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. As former NSA analyst William Binney told The Daily Caller, “They’re making themselves dysfunctional by collecting all of this data.”

The collection of metadata is not as innocuous as it might sound. Metadata may include who you call, what you search for, and where you shop. Large quantities of metadata gathered over time can reveal your religion, political views, health concerns, and other personal details. Knowledge is power, and others could potentially use that knowledge to intimidate or even blackmail you. Just knowing that you are constantly being watched may be enough to dissuade you from engaging in dissent.

If privacy is no longer realistic, then forget about personal safety. Your phone, Internet, and credit card records include account numbers, usernames, and passwords. This information could be used to steal your money or even your identity. Plus, by gathering your data and storing it in a central database, the government creates yet another opportunity for hackers to access your private data — a risk over which you have no control.

The existence of strict rules for accessing and using the data does not guarantee that abuses won’t occur. Surely there are strict rules that prohibit the Internal Revenue Service from targeting groups based on their political views. Yet it happened. While safeguards can be put in place to prevent abuse of citizens’ records, there are always ways to get around safeguards. Eliminating the source of temptation is a far better solution.

The variety of people who support government surveillance of the entire U.S. population and the arguments they make to justify it are disturbing. New York Times columnist David Brooks accuses self-appointed whistleblower Edward Snowden of betraying open government, the “privacy of us all,” and the Constitution.

Brooks believes that Snowden’s actions can only drive the federal government to become more secretive. While most people agree that the U.S. government should keep certain information secret, they expect the government to generally operate in an open and transparent manner. We are beyond hope if the actions of a lone individual can cause the government to abandon such fundamental principles.

Brooks warns that if government can’t perform broad data sweeps, it may revert to more intrusive methods. But isn’t the purpose of broad data sweeps to identify specific cases in which more intrusive methods are warranted? Besides, it’s hard to imagine anything more intrusive than a government that tracks everyone’s phone, Internet, and credit card use. It’s the NSA — not Snowden — that betrays the Constitution through the arbitrary search and seizure of citizens’ communication records.

In a column for FoxNew.com, the usually libertarian John Stossel argues that massive NSA spying is not a big deal because “terrorists do want to murder us” and “electronic privacy has already been utterly shredded by Google, Amazon, YouTube and so on.” The fact that terrorists want to murder us should underscore the need to do a better job identifying terrorists and terrorist plots, and the first step toward achieving that goal should be to remove the blinders that prevent more accurate targeting. And does Stossel really believe that if several large companies are tracking consumers then the U.S. government should do the same? Companies can’t arrest and imprison citizens, but government can.

New technology provides government with powerful investigative tools — tools that should help shift the emphasis in data gathering from quantity to quality. Spying on everyone won’t make us secure, but it will make us less free.

Ira Brodsky is co-author with Scott Cleland of “Search & Destroy: Why You Can’t Trust Google Inc.” Visit www.SearchAndDestroyBook.com.