“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759
The news over the past week about our government collecting and “mining” information from phone companies and internet providers has been overwhelming. Some people question the validity of the information gathering in regards to the First and Fourth amendments of the Constitution – the promise of free speech and prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure. Others find it a reasonable compromise of their rights in the ongoing war against terrorism.
When Britain’s Guardian newspaper published the classified U.S. document allegedly supplied by Edward Snowden, a non-government computer geek working for a contractor, it caught everyone by surprise – including government officials. Click HERE to view the document.
The order, issued by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, directs Verizon to provide an electronic copy of call data or metadata to the National Security Administration (NSA). Metadata includes the phone number of every caller and recipient; the unique serial number of the phones involved; the time and duration of each phone call; and potentially the location of each of the participants when the call happened.
That news was followed by the disclosure that the NSA and FISA, under a 2007 program call PRISM, have been tapping into Internet content controlled by Microsoft, Google, Facebook and other leading companies in an ongoing effort to mine communications involving at least one person believed to be overseas.
And apparently it isn’t over yet. According to an Associated Press report, the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald reported that, “We are going to have a lot more significant revelations that have not yet been heard over the next several weeks and months.” Greenwald is the journalist who released the classified information. According to him, a decision is being made on when to release the next story based on the information provided by Snowden.
Lastly, we have news of the start of what is sure to be an onslaught of lawsuits. A Philadelphia couple filed a class-action lawsuit last Friday over the collection of Verizon customers’ records. The suit contends that NSA surveillance violates users’ “reasonable expectation of privacy, free speech and association, right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures, and due process rights.” The lawsuit says it believes its class includes more than 100 million people. The parties are seeking $3 billion in damages, an immediate end to the surveillance activity, expunging the phone records collected, more disclosure about the programs and for authorities to take up the alleged misconduct of Roger Vinson, the judge who signed the secret order.
The defendants in the suit are President Barack Obama; the Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder; the NSA and its director, Keith Alexander; Verizon and its chief executive, Lowell McAdam; and Vinson.
Supporters of the order say it is needed to protect us from terrorist attacks. Detractors say it is a violation of the Constitution and symbolic of a surveillance state that has arose since 9/11 and the passage of the Patriot Act.
Democrats and Republicans alike are falling on both sides of the argument, either steadfastly in favor of the information gathering or adamantly opposed to it.
It looks like the only thing most of us can agree on is that in a modern electronic age, the law and the courts are grossly lagging behind technology. They don’t seem to be aware of the ability of the NSA to determine key facts about individuals without collecting their telephone calling history or mining their Internet activities.
Or, maybe they are.