Ever since 9/11, the American government has been busily constructing the most comprehensive surveillance state in this country's history. This vast and invasive bureaucracy is too big to hide, but the public has done its part by politely ignoring it. No longer. Now is when we, the people, choose whether or not we will accept the end of privacy as we know it. If history is any indication, we will.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the public's consent was explicit: Do Whatever It Takes. As passions faded and the "War on Terror" morphed into a quasi-permanent state of being, our consent became implicit. The public never asked for the surveillance state to stop. Over the past decade, journalists have periodically revealed details of the breadth of our government's spying mechanism: the Washington Post cataloged the breathtaking size of the secret intelligence-industrial complex; Jane Mayer reported on NSA whistleblowers who said that the agency was vacuuming up email and phone records from all Americans. These stories, meticulous though they were, made only a temporary splash. This week's stories are different.
Over the past two days, two incredibly important stories about the U.S. government's spying capabilities broke one after another. First, the story that the NSA is collecting the phone records of all Verizon Business Services customers—which may well include all Verizon users—on a daily, ongoing basis; and then, yesterday, the existence of the PRISM program, in which the NSA and the FBI tap directly into the data streams of the world's biggest internet companies, allowing it to pull out virtually any and all communications data, allowing them to "watch your ideas form as you type." (The vague denials of the various internet companies likely hinge on the technical mechanisms of their cooperation, rather than on the existence of their cooperation itself.)
The great omniscient government spy looking over your shoulder is real. This is the type of spying program that makes conspiracy theorists sound mild in comparison. Even in the context of the wholesale erosion of the very concept of "civil liberties" since 9/11, this is sobering stuff. We have consented, without our knowledge, to giving faceless, unaccountable government representatives access to everything we say and do.
Is government cat watching you masturbate? Well, probably not, in practice. But he could be. And that is the problem. Debate over this program will likely consist of much hassling over whether or not the government is currently using all that data it collects for nefarious purposes. That misses the point. J. Edgar Hoover's FBI built dossiers on thousands of innocent Americans. Many of those files ultimately just sat around collecting dust; others were used for blackmail or other unconstitutional purposes. Either way, the primary outrage was the existence of the files themselves. Once the government has all of your information, it takes only a single immoral bureaucrat or a lax culture of oversight to put it to bad use. The Fourth Amendment— "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures"— was not passed because the British had in fact been coming into every colonist's house, but because they had reserved the right to do so without cause. Likewise, our government is now reserving the right to digitally replicate Hoover's FBI files on a much grander scale. That right itself is what must be denied.
Public outrage over these things tends to be correlated to how much faith we have in the current presidential administration. That's a mistake. Were Bush still president, Democrats would be appalled and fearful of what might be done with all their private data; as it is, Bill O'Reilly is drawing parallels to the IRS scandal and warning darkly of the government spying on conservatives. In reality, the principle is the important thing. This is only more outrageous given Barack Obama's background as a constitutional law professor, of all things. Obama certainly has personal qualms about presiding over the construction of such a vast surveillance state, but he evidently does not have the backbone to halt it, knowing that it could backfire on him politically in the case of one successful terrorist attack. “The president welcomes a discussion of the trade-offs between security and civil liberties," a White House spokesman said. That remark is disgraceful.
Consider just a few of the implications of what we now know. First, the idea that U.S. intelligence agencies only direct their efforts at foreigners is a farce. They are collecting the data of Americans and foreigners alike, and of phone calls both foreign and domestic. It is a classic example of Martin Niemoller's famous poem come to life: First they came for Al-Qaeda, and I did not speak out because I was not Al-Qaeda; Then they came for the dark-skinned foreigners, and I did not speak out because I was not a dark-skinned foreigner; Then I found out they've had access to all of my pornography searches for years now. Fuck.
Second, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the fact that the vast majority of our most powerful elected officials knew all about this program, and have been signing off on it for years. The inherent secrecy of the surveillance state is far too powerful to be held in check by mere democracy. America, the shining beacon of liberty, collects all of its citizens' communications, with the permission of a secret court, and of elected officials who are not allowed to discuss it. Even those few Congressmen who tried to fight these programs through the proper legal channels were met with Orwellian resistance. When Sen. Ron Wyden tried to find out how many Americans had had data intercepted by the NSA, the NSA reportedly "wrote Wyden a letter stating that it would violate the privacy of Americans in NSA data banks to try to estimate their number."
Savor that, America. It is the type of delicious irony that only a terrifyingly powerful bureaucracy can provide.
There is no way for us to know what the government is doing with all of our data. It's a secret. This is why civilized societies enact laws to rein in the power of their government's spying operations— because we are granting them the enormous power of working in secret, and therefore they must operate under very strict general parameters, because we cannot know the specifics of what they are doing. A society that calls itself "free" simply cannot allow secret spies to have a peephole into everything we say and do. When it was revealed that the Justice Department had obtained phone records of reporters at the AP, there was universal outrage. I hope you didn't use it all up, because what the NSA is doing makes the AP spying look like a raindrop in the ocean. Does the NSA have access to all of our data? Yes. What will the NSA use this access for? "We can't tell you," says the NSA. Will the NSA ever abuse this power? "No," says the NSA. Well... can we be sure? "No," says the NSA. "You just have to trust us."
Trust is a poor substitute for law. Particularly when it comes to a government that's just been revealed to be operating a huge domestic spying program, in contravention of previously state aims of only spying on foreign terrorists. The government may not be reading your email— but it could be, with the push of a button. And that is the scary part. It is like being followed around by a man who holds a gun to you head but says, "Relax. I promise I'm not going to pull this trigger."
Now is when we choose whether privacy, as it has traditionally been understood, will continue to exist. That is not hyperbole. A government with cameras on every city corner and a tap on every phone is not some paranoid futurist fantasy. It is what we have now. And our government will continue to grant greater and greater power to itself, in secret, until we actively choose to make it stop. The surveillance state to which we have acquiesced is by is nature a self-expanding machine. If we do not demand that it be turned off, it will become a permanent feature of the Land of the Free.