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6 reasons you should, and shouldn't, freak out about the NSA data-mining
Americans are conflicted about the (sort of) new revelations of NSA surveillance. No wonder.
Does government surveillance impede our civil liberties more than the response to another terrorist attack would?
Does government surveillance impede our civil liberties more than the response to another terrorist attack would? AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
A

mid all the strong, clashing opinions over the leaked National Security Agency surveillance secrets, there's one thing everybody says they agree on: It's great we can finally have a long-overdue conversation about how we should balance national security with civil liberties.

As The Week's Keith Wagstaff and others have noted, though, it's hard to have that conversation. For one thing, many of the most knowledgeable people on the national security end aren't allowed to discuss what they know — and the rest of us, as Wagstaff says, "don't even know what we don't know about the NSA." Also, many of the loudest voices are less interested in conversing than in advancing their own beliefs. (Shocking, right?)

But it's also true that we're not even on the same page when it comes to broad themes like privacy. "Privacy is hard to define and even harder to defend," says Rebecca J. Rosen at The Atlantic. Most Americans seem to be on board with the NSA's data-mining operations, but it depends on how you ask the question:

  • On Sunday, Rasmussen reported that 59 percent of likely voters oppose the government "secretly collecting the phone records of millions of Americans for national security purposes regardless of whether there is any suspicion of wrongdoing."
  • But on Monday, Pew found that 62 percent of Americans say it's more important for the government to "investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy." More specifically, 56 percent are fine with the NSA tracking the "phone call records of millions of Americans" and 45 percent are okay with monitoring "everyone's emails and online activities" if that might prevent terrorist attacks.
  • A new CBS News poll, on the other hand, finds 58 percent of Americans opposed to the government collecting the "phone records of ordinary Americans." At the same time, 62 percent of respondents say they are not concerned that the government might be collecting their own phone records, and a plurality — 46 percent — say the government has the privacy-security balance "about right" (36 percent say Uncle Sam has gone too far, and the other 13 percent, not far enough).

Where does this leave us? Libertarians and civil-liberties advocates are frustrated that not everyone sees the grave danger of giving up freedom for the illusion of security; national security hawks are annoyed that the media and activists are exaggerating (or misunderstanding) the level of NSA snooping; and everybody else is confused, ambivalent, or bored with what seems like yet another shouting match.

So, here are three cogent arguments for why these NSA revelations are a huge deal you should be very worked up about, and three for why we should all take some deep breaths and relax. We condense, you decide:

THIS IS A VERY BIG DEAL

1. Unchecked surveillance threatens our democracy
Perhaps Americans are blasé about the NSA's massive collection of our private data because President Obama, congressional leaders, and intelligence officials "insist that such surveillance is crucial to the nation's anti-terrorism efforts," says The New York Times in an editorial. But that sets up a false choice between liberty and security, and "Americans should not be fooled." The stakes are incredibly high.

The surreptitious collection of "metadata" — every bit of information about every phone call except the word-by-word content of conversations — fundamentally alters the relationship between individuals and their government.... The government's capacity to build extensive, secret digital dossiers on such a mass scale is totally at odds with the vision and intention of the nation's framers who crafted the Fourth Amendment precisely to outlaw indiscriminate searches that cast a wide net to see what can be caught. It also attacks First Amendment values of free speech and association.

In a democracy, people are entitled to know what techniques are being used by the government to spy on them, how the records are being held and for how long, who will have access to them, and the safeguards in place to prevent abuse.... Even if most Americans trust President Obama not to abuse their personal data, no one knows who will occupy the White House or lead intelligence operations in the future. [New York Times]

2. The NSA could come for you
The "unimaginably vast trove of communications data" the NSA is compiling isn't just a digital record of each of us, says Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post, but "the bigger it gets, the more useful it is in enabling analysts to make predictions." So you may not be concerned that U.S. spooks can, at least theoretically, read the emails of ordinary Britons and Germans — though our allies certainly are — but digital crystal balls are dangerous.

It's one thing if the NSA looks for patterns in the data that suggest a nascent overseas terrorist group or an imminent attack. It's another thing altogether if the agency observes, say, patterns that suggest the birth of the next Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street movement. [Washington Post]

Even if you've never done anything wrong, this massive collection of your data could come back to haunt you — think IRS audits, but worse, says Danah Boyd at Slate. "A surveillance state will produce more suspect individuals." Why? "Because if someone has a vested interest in you being guilty, it's not impossible to paint that portrait, especially if you have enough data." But even if you aren't worried about being targeted yourself, think about ethnic, religious, and other minorities. "Is your perception of your safety worth the marginalization of other people who don't have your privilege?"

3. The small threat of terrorism isn't worth the cost
The terrorists didn't win entirely after 9/11, says Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic. Most of us still go on "enjoying life's opportunities and pleasures." But "as a collective, irrational cowardice is getting the better of our polity." Even the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history killed only about 3,000 people, Friedersdorf adds — the same number of Americans who die from food poisoning every year, and a tiny fraction of U.S. automobile and gun deaths.

The seeming contradictions in how we treat different threats suggest that we aren't trading civil liberties for security, but a sense of security. We aren't empowering the national-security state so that we're safer, but so we feel safer.... Ceding liberty and privacy to keep myself safe from terrorism doesn't even guarantee that I'll be safer! It's possible that the surveillance state will prove invasive and ineffective....

Civil libertarians are not demanding foolish or unreasonable courage when they suggest that the threat of terrorism isn't so great as to warrant massive spying on innocent Americans and the creation of a permanent database that practically guarantees eventual abuse. Americans would never welcome a secret surveillance state to reduce diabetes deaths, or gun deaths, or drunk-driving deaths by 3,000 per year. [Atlantic]

EVERYBODY CALM DOWN

1. The NSA programs are legal, with checks and balances
Where to set the legal and procedural limits on electronic data collection is "a worthy debate to have," says The Washington Post in an editorial. But as far as we know, there's nothing illegal about the NSA information gathering, the courts and Congress are part of the program, and there's not "any evidence that the authorities were abused or that the privacy of any American was illegally or improperly invaded."

Just as it is important not to exaggerate the national security risks of transparency, it is also important not to give in to the anti-government paranoia of grandstanding politicians such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who on Sunday invoked the tyranny of King George III to criticize programs that are the result of a checked, deliberative process across three branches of government. Part of what makes this different is that if enough Americans expect more privacy after the debate... their representatives in Washington can act on their behalf. [Washington Post]

2. Terrorism is the real threat to civil liberties
Listening to this debate over the NSA leaks, "I do wonder if some of those who unequivocally defend this disclosure are behaving as if 9/11 never happened — that the only thing we have to fear is government intrusion in our lives," says Thomas Friedman in The New York Times. "Yes, I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11 — abuse that, so far, does not appear to have happened," he adds. "But I worry even more about another 9/11." Civil libertarians should, too.

What I cherish most about America is our open society, and I believe that if there is one more 9/11 — or worse, an attack involving nuclear material — it could lead to the end of the open society as we know it. If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: "Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again." That is what I fear most.

That is why I'll reluctantly, very reluctantly, trade off the government using data mining to look for suspicious patterns in phone numbers called and email addresses — and then have to go to a judge to get a warrant to actually look at the content under guidelines set by Congress — to prevent a day where, out of fear, we give government a license to look at anyone, any email, any phone call, anywhere, anytime. [New York Times]

3. Data mining is better than eavesdropping
Civil libertarians are upset about the massive amount and scope of the data being sucked up by the NSA, but it's not as if "NSA goblins have been studying everyone's phone calls," says William Saletan at Slate. The feds may indiscriminately collect all our phone records, but they have to cross a much higher legal barrier to take a peek at it, Saletan says. "In other words, the rules that most of us would apply at the collection stage — reasonable suspicion, specific facts, court approval — are applied instead at the query stage."

"Civil libertarians are right to worry" that the NSA never deletes those records, says Saletan — that's the point of the database, since phone companies do purge their databases — but if the government doesn't convince us that strong enough protections against abuse are in place, "we don't have to reject the NSA's database. We just have to build in sensible, visible restrictions." For all we know, Saletan says, the NSA has sensible, strong oversight systems in place (see Marc Ambinder's primer at The Week), but "what's absurd is that we don't know, because the government won't tell us."

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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