Torn Between Security and Privacy

How far should the government be able to go to keep us safe?

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(AP Photo)
A copy of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order requiring Verizon on an "ongoing, daily basis," to give the NSA information on all landline and mobile telephone calls.

Revelations that the federal government has been collecting information about who Americans call on their cell phones – and possibly also accessing digital content like emails and chat messages from companies like Google, Apple and Skype – has sparked heated dissent during the last five days. On one end of the spectrum, privacy advocates have sounded an alarm over the notion that Big Brother is watching us far more closely than was previously realized. On the other end of the spectrum, national security apologists have argued that the methods in question are minimally intrusive and a small price to pay to keep the homeland safe.

I suspect many Americans are torn between these two extremes.

There's no doubt the decision by a former National Security Agency contractor to go public with the agency's practice of tracking private communications data is a gift to those who would do our nation harm. The more our enemies know about our methods of amassing intelligence, the easier it is for them to evade our prying eyes. The question is whether bringing to light the government's questionable choice of surveillance tactics was worth that risk. The answer hinges in part on who we believe our enemies are – or could be in the future.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Had the government limited itself to tracking known or suspected foreign terrorists, Wednesday's bombshell story would likely have been met with indifference. But the surveillance hasn't been limited to foreign targets. In fact, it's been specifically directed inward at American citizens here at home. And that, for a lot of people, is troubling.

It's troubling even if the intention of the program is to track only those individuals seen as an imminent threat to our national security. It's troubling because the definition of "threat" has a tendency to evolve or soften over time.

Initially, a person might have to be a terrorist in order for the government to decide he's worth keeping an eye on. But what happens tomorrow? Is it enough for someone to be deemed a potential terrorist candidate? Could domestic criminal activities be construed to fit the description of threats to national security? Are radical anti-government protesters really that different from religious suicide bombers? Could political opponents of a sitting administration be targeted under the auspices of keeping the country safe? Would there be any way for us to know if they were, or to stop it?

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These are the questions Americans should always be asking: not what a program was created to do, but rather what abuses its creation invites. Perhaps they'll decide the type of data mining happening now is as benign as the government claims.

But if they're thinking a practice aimed at tracking terrorists couldn't be perverted in the way I'm describing, they should remember what a handful of employees at an Internal Revenue Service office in Cincinnati were capable of doing without anyone apparently taking notice – and where the word Gestapogot its start.

  • Read Susan Milligan: NSA Surveillance, Technology and the End of Privacy
  • Read Jamie Stiehm: Michelle Obama's Heckler and the NSA Scandal
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