Spying, privacy, and “brave new world”

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Last month, President Barack Obama promised to move the country away from the "state of perpetual war" otherwise known as the endless "war on terror," which began under the Bush administration in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Obama eloquently quoted President James Madison's warning "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." In that speech, the president renewed a promise he made five years ago to close the shameful Guantanamo prison and vowed to dial back (a bit) on the indefensible drone strikes. The president defended the expansive seizure of media organizations' records, while calling on Congress to pass a "shield" law to protect journalists.

But "continual warfare" is not only about military matters. It also concerns the collection of intelligence. What was sorely lacking from the president's speech was a brisk defense of individual freedoms - right to privacy, constitutional and civil liberties - all of which are too often and unnecessarily casualties of warfare. The Bush administration became a great practitioner of unwarranted spying, until forced to stop by the American people.

In hindsight, Obama's omission is glaring after last week's bombshell reports that the U.S. government is conducting massive data collection on Americans and foreign nationals.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden, a former analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency and current employee at military-security contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, leaked secret documents to the UK's Guardian and The Washington Post detailing the enormous collection of telephone call and electronic communication data. Apparently Booz Allen was working with the National Security Agency on a secret program called Prism in which the government can clandestinely access the servers of the world's biggest private data collectors, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, PalTalk, Skype, AOL, and Apple, looking for patterns of behavior in order to predict and therefore prevent terrorist attacks. In addition to electronic data, documents also revealed that the government collects telephone data from Verizon Business customers. It is not known if the government collects data on Verizon residential customers or if other telephone companies are also part of any surveillance orders OK'd by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

After the revelations, the president attempted to assure the public that phone conversations were not being listened to. And, Americans should rest easy because the Prism program "does not apply" to U.S. citizens and residents, although Americans' electronic information housed on say a Google server could certainly be collected. Call it collateral collection damage.

Obama defended the programs as vital to national security. He offered a feeble rationale, by saying "you can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy." No one in this day and age of social media, cell phones and omnipresent security cameras thinks they can have 100 percent privacy. And the Boston Marathon attack certainly proves you cannot have 100 percent security - even when U.S. authorities are warned in advance of extremist activities.

What Americans do expect is a government that is restrained by transparency and public oversight. It is incredible that as a candidate in 2008, President Obama promised a return to constitutional norms after the Bush administration trampled the Bill of Rights and civil liberties time and time again, but has presided over an exponential growth of government spying - and drone attacks. That was not the "change" Americans voted for.

The Obama administration is not being accused of breaking any U.S. laws with these policies. And that is part of the problem. After 9/11, President George W. Bush asked for and Congress passed the dystopian Patriot Act, reauthorizing it most recently in 2011 with provisions that permit widespread surveillance and record seizures with court-approval. One concrete way to signal an end to the endless war is to repeal the Patriot Act and its granting the government limitless spying powers. Of course with the Republicans in charge of the House and able to stymie any action in the Senate, there will have to be a mighty movement to win such a demand.

While the president and Democrats surely bear much responsibility for what widely seems a gross overreach of power in not only the surveillance programs and records seizure of journalists and millions of other Americans, but the severe prosecutions of leakers/whistleblowers, including Bradley Manning, and the lack of transparency on both the drone and spying programs, the impact of the Republicans and the ultra-right cannot be minimized nor ignored. Remember Bush's Total Information Awareness Program, its shredding of the Constitution, and endorsement of renditions and torture? Not only did their undemocratic policies set the stage for this current day crisis, but their constant pressure and attacks on the Obama administration as well as their hawkish push for a larger military-technology complex has to be taken into account for any movement to win civil liberties victories.

Let us remember that this is not the first widespread governmental spying on ordinary Americans. There was the vile hounding of communists and suspected communists by the FBI and Congress in the 1940s and 1950s. There was the infiltration of peace and civil rights movements by police and other government agents during the 1960s and 1970s. Today the police and law enforcement spy on law-abiding Americans active in an Occupy protest, and for years now, innocent Arab and Muslim Americans have been caught in a government dragnet that targets those communities often indiscriminately.

But today, because of the cyber-world where almost unlimited data can be stored and combed through in a blink of an eye, the spying seems to become easier - more open to abuse. Developing definitions of privacy in this "brave new world" are areas of class and social contention. The merger of state interests with corporate technology giants' interests is undoubtedly one side of this brave new world's arena of struggle. How the other side shapes up to guarantee an Orwellian Big Brother stays in the realm of fiction is in formation.

Photo: (Steve Garfield/CC)