Somewhere in the bluffs of Utah sits a $1.2 billion warehouse that serves as the data-storage center for every phone call you’ve made and every text you’ve sent. It is jam-packed with all forms of digital communication, including your private emails and internet searches, not to mention the receipts from the parking garages you frequent or your airplane tickets. The National Security Agency has records on every single American citizen, and now we are told that they’re collecting records on foreign leaders too, namely German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Such is the most recent railcar to pass in the long train of abuses from the United States federal government, and we can rest assured it will not be the caboose.
Don’t worry, the NSA implores; for neither thee nor me, dear reader, are affected by this frightening program. Americans are confused if they believe that the government is listening to their phone calls or reading to their emails. “This is simply not the case,” an NSA spokesperson tells us. Nay, they’re only collecting the “metadata” from this information.
What this means, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is that they know you dialed up a phone-sex hotline in the wee hours of the morning, but the contents of that phone call remain confidential. They’d know if you called a suicide prevention center from the Golden Gate Bridge, but they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. They can see that you spoke with your gynecologist, and then later that day a local Planned Parenthood, but they don’t know what was discussed.
In further spirit of invading your privacy, the Supreme Court quietly ushered in new precedent earlier this year by way of the case Maryland v. King. That decision, delivered by Justice Anthony Kennedy, upheld the Maryland DNA Collection Act, which authorizes local law enforcement to collect DNA samples from criminal offenders, and then cross-reference it with a database from unsolved crimes. That is, the Supreme Court says that the police can pry your mouth open, swab your DNA, and then use it to implicate you in a crime that they otherwise had no idea that you had ever been involved in. This would be much the same as if you could be arrested for DUI miles from your home, and officers then go to your house to sniff around a little to see what else you’re up to.
Not surprisingly, this horrifying precedent has already begun to infest our streets. On Nov. 20, NBC news in Fort Worth reported that local police were “apologiz[ing] for it’s role in a federal survey,” (sic for “serving as the jackboots in government tyranny”) after being accused of conducting traffic stops and demanding innocents turn over their DNA. Obviously they can’t do this, and rarely would anyone argue that they should. This author doubts Washington or Madison would have been more-than-happy to say “ahh” for King George anymore than they’d be willing to invite a redcoat into their home for a random inspection. But now America is just some country that we used to know.
Those who would shrug away the implications of this precedent might tell us only the guilty have anything to worry about. We shouldn’t mind, so long as we’re not doing anything wrong, they say. But anyone who entertains the argument that “if you’re innocent, you have nothing to hide” is free to send a copy of his internet browsing history to his grandmother. Or, perhaps he could show everyone in line the contents of his bank account. Or, if he’d like he may stand up in the waiting room to tell everyone at his doctor’s office what kind of check up he’s there for. The fact is, there are some things that folks like to keep private regardless of whether or not they have done anything illegal.
Ethical objections aside, all of this is quite clearly in violation of the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause,” which has been long understood to mean that warrantless searches are a no-no. As Justice Antonin Scalia states in his dissent in King: “ (the) Fourth Amendment forbids searching a person for evidence of a crime when there is no basis for believing the person is guilty of the crime or is in possession of incriminating evidence.” Clearly the NSA’s massive data-mining program violates this long-standing tradition of privacy.
It is either hilarious or depressing that libertarians were once decried as conspiracy kooks for warning that the government was monitoring and scrutinizing our every move, when now this merely a statement of fact. It is nothing short of terrifying that the same government may soon be adding our DNA to their database, in Minority Report proportions. Frightening as it may be, We The People seem less than moved by this reality. We should be demanding that Big Brother stop watching us, but instead we go about our lives. Make no mistake, if the federal government can spy on us as we yawn and move on, there is no limit to what they may do. One can only hope, as chills run down the spine, that sooner or later the public wises up and demands a little privacy. One can only hope.