Despite an attempt at reassurance from President Obama Friday, Americans have every reason to be concerned that data on their telephone calls will continue to be collected by the government.
Responding to last year’s disclosure of electronic surveillance efforts of the National Security Agency by whistleblower Edward Snowden, Obama Friday announced new rules for data collection and storage. These changes mainly involve how the NSA stores collected data and who gets access to it. But the bottom line remains: The NSA will continue to collect the numbers and times of calls made by every American.
The government claims this “metadata” — the details about the time and place of calls but not the actual conversations themselves — are key to national security in an age in which global terrorist networks rely on modern communications to plan and execute their nefarious schemes.
But it is also enormously intrusive into the private lives of Americans and raises serious constitutional questions about the right of the people to be, as the Fourth Amendment states, secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Chillingly, the president in his address at the Justice Department, asked Americans to set aside their constitutional and privacy concerns.
“After all, the folks at NSA and other intelligence agencies are our neighbors and our friends,” Obama said. “They have electronic bank and medical records like everyone else. They have kids on Facebook and Instagram, and they know, more than most of us, the vulnerabilities to privacy that exist in a world where transactions are recorded, emails and text messages are stored, and even our movements can be tracked through the GPS on our phones.”
Surely, the president means well, but such assurances strike us as incredibly naive. History is filled with stories of “neighbors and friends” happily sending their countrymen off to death camps and gulags, all in the name of state security necessities.
Under the reforms Obama announced Friday, metadata will still be collected on all telephone calls but, eventually, will no longer be stored by the NSA but under some third-party arrangement to be worked out with Congress. Access to the data will require the approval of the secret Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has been so supportive of government requests for surveillance as to be a rubber stamp.
Snowden also revealed, embarrassingly to the government, that we are monitoring the calls of foreign leaders, even those of our allies.
“The bottom line is that people around the world — regardless of their nationality — should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account,” Obama said. “This applies to foreign leaders, as well.”
In other words, the intelligence gathering will continue, as long as it serves our national security interests.
Most Americans probably don’t care if we are spying on foreign leaders and governments. After all, these governments are likely gathering all the data they can on our leaders.
But it is gratifying to know that most Americans are bothered by the idea of such sweeping data collection in our own country.
Some in Congress on both sides of the political divide are indicating they believe Obama’s reforms have not gone far enough.
“Congress must do what the president apparently will not: end the unconstitutional violation of Americans’ privacy, stop the suspicionless surveillance of our people and close the era of secret law,” Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan told CNN.
Surely, there is a need to monitor the activities of suspected terrorists and to try to stop them before they strike. But doing so by collecting data on every telephone call made by Americans goes too far. Congress should act to set further limits on the NSA’s data collection program.
Such extensive data collected on the telephone activities of all Americans is too open to abuse and incompatible with the maintenance of a free society.