Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Privacy, security and umbrage

I have concerns I'd like to discuss,
but I don't share the apparent hysteria.

 Is it too blunt to say so? To suggest that so many on the Left--colleagues and allies and heroes and Facebook friends--are overreacting to the news that the NSA is capturing data about the phone habits and patterns of tens of millions of Americans? I mean, I love Daniel Ellsberg, but I sure don't share his assessment that Edward Snowden's actions in revealing a classified NSA-operation is an act of courage and sacrifice even remotely close to Ellsberg's actions in stealing, compiling and releasing the Pentagon Papers.

The publication of those classified documents in 1971 made clear for the first time that government strategists believed that the Vietnam War could not be won and that elected officials were lying about what they were doing and what they intended to do. The New York Times was briefly enjoined from publishing the documents and Ellsberg, who made no claims about his own courage and sacrifice, was systematically and illegally investigated and harassed by the same Nixon-administration operatives central to the Watergate break-in.

History may one day affirm the notion that Edward Snowden did a great thing, but it can never show that Snowden revealed anything that most of the Left and much of the rest of the country didn't already know. For evidence, I submit a column by Walter Pincus, "A surveillance history lesson," in today's Washington Post.

More than 40 years ago, Pincus tells us the NSA was engaged in a whole range of spying activities that  surprised staff of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, collecting data from ordinary eavesdropping, but also from "cables and intercepts from satellites," Pincus writes. The committee demanded and eventually received "a full description of the NSA's then expanding worldwide collections, how the material was being used, and the means by which the NSA minimized reading or listening to non-relevant material on U.S. citizens."

In his piece, Pincus also notes a 1979 Supreme Court decision upholding a lower court ruling that said, in part, "there is no constitutionally protected reasonable expectation of privacy in the numbers dialed into a telephone system."

One can, of course, object passionately to the court's decision, but it is another matter for anyone on the Left to experience shock at the notion that our government is engaged in surveillance of all sorts of people and all manner of activities that seem routine and ought to be private. We know better than that. We know our history. We know that governments, both democratic and otherwise, will use every available technology to gather any information that the government deems necessary to protect and/or control. And we know that the U.S. government spies on us in ways that we'd rather not think about.

We also know that government will go too far in defense of its prerogatives and that some agents of the government will try to evade oversight in the exercise of police power. Snowden may not be a hero (check out Richard Cohen's take on Snowden, "A scoop of hot air"), but it is a demonstration of overreach to characterize him as a traitor. He must not be punished for telling us what we already knew.

Marrianne McMullen, the person to whom I am married (and a federal employee), points out that the Department of Health and Human Services manages a database that has the name, salary, social security number and other information about every single legally  employed person in the United States.  The database is used only for child support enforcement and may be one of the most important factors in reducing poverty in single-parent households. Access to the database is absolutely restricted to authorized personnel engaged in child support collection activities.

Ultimately, the employment/income database exists because the technology to collect and manage the information exists. Not collecting it would be a grievous government failure.

Do I believe that the government may go too far in collecting data? Yes, absolutely. But I also believe that if an extended computerized analysis of information that does not compromise individual identities or jeopardize people without probable cause can help identify danger to Americans, it's worth doing. The important questions go way beyond whether such data collection is occurring. The areas that need full public discussion are connected to who collects the data, who oversees the collectors, and where the line between privacy and security is drawn.

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