NSA Surveillance Should Not Be the New Normal
It's saying something when National Security Agency data collection becomes a reference point in the sports pages.
In an article in this morning's Houston Chronicle, reporter Roy Bragg begins by quipping that the scope of the NSA's PRISM program is nothing when compared to the depth of data college football scouts gather on talented high school prospects.
Bragg may be engaging in standard sportswriter hyperbole. Still, I find it disconcerting when he and his editors are now so comfortable alluding to the most intrusive electronic surveillance program in history so casually. It signals a frighteningly routine social acceptance of the NSA activities.
Last June's initial revelation of the NSA PRISM program -- the interception of metadata from millions of wireless phones -- remains top-of-mind for the general public. Even so, the disclosures that followed in the ensuing months were even more alarming.
There was mining of social networks for keywords and of email accounts for address books.
There was news of the placement of "back doors" -- programming code designed to defeat firewalls and security software -- in U.S.-made infrastructure sold to foreign businesses and governments.
There were projects to defeat private encryption.
There were attempts to remotely activate embedded PC cameras for surreptitious recording.
There was a plan to use radio waves to access data on devices not connected to the Internet.
By January, when it came to light that the NSA had infiltrated innocuous online games like Angry Birds to gain location data on users, the whole program seemed to be becoming a parody of itself.
Humorous perhaps, but grimly so. NSA spying appears likely to extract a high price from the U.S. technology industry. As I noted in a paper the R Street Institute published last week, Forrester Research estimates that the revelations about NSA spying could cost the global industry $180 billion over the next three years.
But the damage from loss of basic trust in the Internet could be incalculable. Steven Levy takes a deep dive into the question in this month's Wired. The bottom line is that, for a long time, the global community saw the United States, despite some occasional policy bumbling, as basically on the side of the angels. Now Washington's activities -- and to some extent, the tech industry's compliance -- is giving cover to far more repressive regimes who want to wall off their own Internets.
President Obama's response has been terribly weak. He offers neither a satisfactory justification for the NSA's sweeping program nor any indication of where he thinks the boundaries should be. He repeats the NSA's claim that its surveillance program has stopped "dozens" of terrorist attacks, yet offers no specifics. In sum, the presidential attitude comes across as: "Living in a world of asymmetrical warfare sucks, but there it is."
It shouldn't be so. Fortunately, there's an opportunity for others to take the lead. In my R Street paper, I discuss that rewriting the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to extend Fourth Amendment rights, especially regarding search and seizure, to personal data stored in the cloud would be a great place to start. But truly, the entire legal infrastructure that was rashly created in the wake of 9/11 needs a top-to-bottom re-evaluation.
That's why it's encouraging to see conservatives and liberals on the House Judiciary Committee, such as Reps. Ted Poe, R-Texas, and Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, agreeing that there needs to be strong legislative response to what they both see as NSA overreach. What the NSA revelations tell us is that, institutionally, the government believes privacy is expendable -- that government has a right to investigate and question every intimate detail of your life. And if you are too circumspect on Facebook, Twitter or in your routine email, it has the wherewithal to hack your hard drive to fill in the any gaps in your digital dossier.
It would be sad if Americans simply resign themselves to this. It's not how life in our constitutional republic is supposed to be.
Steven Titch is an associate fellow of the R Street Institute. This piece originally appeared on the R Street blog.