Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Liberty Isn't Privacy

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, June 25, 2013 --  

The NSA's surveillance of ordinary Americans' is not a privacy issue. It is a fundamental betrayal of Americans' basic liberties.

The fine print on Google's free mail service isn't even visible on the signup page. A checkbox simply appears next to the declaration, "I agree to the Google Terms of Service and Privacy Policy". So ubiquitous are such signup checkboxes, and so convoluted are their linked terms, that Americans have been effectively trained to ignore the details of what they are signing away in exchange for free stuff.

It should be no surprise, then, when pollsters find that 58 percent of Americans support National Security Agency monitoring of their calls and internet activity.1 After the nation's secret terms of service were exposed by the press early this month, the NSA director went on record before Congress to tout the supposed benefits of the service, which he claims includes thwarting over 50 terrorist attacks.2 Like a list of benefits on an internet service's signup page, these claims are at the same time boastful, impressive, vague, unverifiable, yet plausible.

Who wouldn't agree to share their phone call logs and web surfing records in return for not being blown up by terrorists? If the NSA were an internet company, offering a free online terrorist protection service, America's would be clicking the "I agree to the terms of service and privacy policy" checkbox by the millions.

Many Americans aren't worried about this surveilance because they trust their government. The same poll that found majority support for NSA surveillance saw that this support was strongest amongst Democrats (who would be most likely to agree with the current administration), and opposition was strongest amongst Republicans. Think back six years ago, when Republicans were in power, and this support would have been reversed.

This dichotomy reveals a bit of foolishness and short-sightedness in many Americans' partisan-oriented support for the NSA program. Government power does not end with a change in a party or administration. Those willing to grant power to those with similar political views should realize they are also granting this power to future administrations with views they find highly disagreeable. (Obama supporters should imagine a President-elect Dick Cheney in 2016.)

In the case of Google, it is also quite likely that future executives will be less enamored with the "Don't be evil" corporate slogan, and may be more likely to sell out users for monetary gain.

But for all the similarities, there are some pretty fundamental differences. The NSA is not an internet company, and their is no checkbox on a signup form. Whether you agree with it or not, the NSA is going to see what phone calls you make and when, and what information you view on the Internet. The NSA's parent company, the federal government, has the legal ability to arrest you, put you in jail, and even execute you in extreme cases depending on what it finds out about you.

Unlike with Google, there is no opt-out or way to quit. You can stop using Gmail at any time, but try to opt-out of the government's terms of service and you will quickly find yourself before an income tax collector, an armed officer, a judge, and ultimately a jailer.

The bottom line is that the secret surveillance by the NSA is not a privacy issue -- it is an affront to liberty. The government is fundamentally different from a company or individual because your relationship with it is not voluntary, and it has much greater power to deprive you of your freedom or even your life.

This distinction was well understood by the founders of the American republic 240 years ago, which is precisely why they rebelled against the hated "writs of assistance" that allowed British agents to search their homes without any specific prior evidence of wrongdoing. The nation's heroes fought and many died fighting a revolution against tyrannical acts like this. And two centuries after prohibiting them with the Bill of Rights' Fourth Amendment, which requires a supermajority to repeal, the framers would undoubtedly be disheartened to see the the American government they founded doing an end-run around the Constitution to engage in the same kind of secret broad-based searches against its own citizens.

It's sad that polls show a majority of American support these policies. It's worse that America's elected president, senators and congressmen have failed in their duty to the Constitution by authorizing these schemes. And it's scandalous these leaders tried to keep the truth from the very people the Constitution is meant to protect. Let us hope that the American people come to their senses and punish the leaders who have betrayed them.

Related Web Columns:

Good Corp, Bad Cop?, December 25, 2007

Trolling Though Your Life
The Betrayal of Telecom Customers
, May 16, 2006


1.UPI, Many in U.S. Support NSA Spy Programs, but Most Want Hearings, June 9, 2013

2. ABC News, NSA: 'Over 50' Terror Plots Foiled by Data Dragnets, June 18, 2003