For a while now, I’ve lived with the presumption that anything I transact over the Internet gets snorfed up in transit by the National Security Agency, for possible review/analysis/whatever. This week, we learned that Verizon, the telephone company for many of us, has turned over records of all telephone calls made over its network in recent weeks to the government, and that the NSA has an ongoing program to collect data from major Web providers including Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. Apple joined this group more recently, in 2012. That this happened after Steve Jobs died may be telling.
We’re told that all of this is done strictly in the interest of catching terrorists, and that there are safeguards on the use of this information. Somehow, I’m not convinced. It’s probably still a bit of a stretch to sift through billions of telephone records to construct a chain of associations from a given person, but that will only become quicker and easier over time. It seems inexorable that eventually the same process will be used against more ordinary crimes (after all, for every felony there is a related law against ‘conspiring to commit’), for sociological research, and for God knows what else.
I’m a law-abiding citizen, and as far as I’m aware, I’m not under investigation for any sort of crime. But if the police wanted so send officers to track my movements, they could. It would be legal, and Constitutional, because there is no presumption of privacy on a public street or, by extension, in a public conveyance. But it would be preposterously expensive to send officers to follow everyone. And so it always was… until now.
We’re reaching the point where it is becoming practical to perform surveillance on everyone, regardless of whether one has committed a crime or otherwise merits investigation. I carry a cell phone, and I’ve always accepted that in order for it to function, the cell phone network must keep track of approximately where I am. But I’m not comfortable with the notion that the phone could use GPS or other means to more accurately locate itself, and then report that information back to the network, which could then be reported to the government. And I’m really uncomfortable with the notion that, under government order, the phone could be used as a listening device without my knowledge and consent. (And I’m sure that such a feature has been included in our cell phones for years.)
And the telephone companies and Web providers are really big companies, and they know which side their bread is buttered on. They all exist at the grace of the government, and wouldn’t want to get in trouble, lest it interrupt the revenue stream.
The Fourth Amendment says:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
But who is to say what is ‘unreasonable’? I’ve noted in these pages that a search of one’s possessions prior to boarding an aircraft is reasonable, for reasons that go beyond terrorism. (What’s reprehensible is the conduct of the people carrying out the search, but that’s a subject for another day.) But this week, politicians and columnists have lined up to commend the government for its efforts to keep us safe: it’s only ‘metadata,’ people; nothing to worry about. So I guess the current view is that trawling through everyones phone records is ‘reasonable.’ Ten years hence, when voice recognition is fast and really, really cheap, it will be ‘reasonable’ to trawl through the actual content of everyone’s voice conversations.
You don’t want the terrorists to win, right?
Or do you?