I’ll admit to having changed my mind since the revelation nearly two weeks ago that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has computers searching for clues about upcoming terror attacks by scanning the records of the billions of telephone calls made annually around the world. I have switched from being outraged about the existence of the PRISM program to being reluctantly accepting.
It is a bad idea to give any government — even one that is largely benign and respectful of the rule of law — the covert power to snoop on innocent citizens.
It is a fundamental tenet of Anglo-American-Canadian democracy that because government works for us, not the other way around, the state must not spy on citizens unless those citizens give probable cause that they are conspiring to commit a crime. And only a judge is fit to decide whether probable cause exists. Police, politicians and bureaucrats cannot be permitted to decide for themselves.
Innocent people have a right to expect (and the state, as the servant of the people, has a duty to ensure) they will not be spied on in the normal course of their daily lives.
It is not enough to shrug this off just because you have nothing to hide. It is dangerous to grant governments sweeping power to keep watch over us because someday the same technology that permits governments to ward off terror plots could easily be used to ferret out tax cheats, divorced parents falling behind on child support or even those who run afoul of politically correct human-rights tribunals.
But I have become convinced that the NSA program is not about Big Brother scrutiny of ordinary Americans, Canadians and other Westerners.
Courts around the world have already deemed that telephone records showing which numbers called and were called, where and at what time, are business records, not personal ones. They belong to the phone companies and can be accessed for criminal investigations.
Essentially, what the NSA is doing is pooling all of those records from around the globe until their computers discern a pattern connected with the phone number of known or suspected terrorists. Once any number is flagged, a human being analyzes the number and suspected patterns.
Then, if the analyst thinks there are sufficient grounds, he or she passes that suspicion up the line to a superior who asks a judge to authorize a more detailed examination of the records of any particular phone.
Not unless a judge approves it is actual eavesdropping permitted.
It is true the special intelligence judges set up in the U.S. to review such warrant requests seldom turn any down. But it is also true that of the billions of phone numbers that passed through the NSA databanks last year, fewer than 300 were selected for further scrutiny.
Michael Mukasey, a former U.S. attorney general and former federal judge, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “it makes about as much sense to deny intelligence agencies access to information … because some of that information theoretically could be misused, as it does to deny guns to police because they could be turned on the innocent.”
We have not entered a new Orwellian age because of the NSA. Nor are Western countries about to become “surveillance nations” because of PRISM.
China is a surveillance nation. Access to Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter are forbidden or heavily regulated. Tens of thousands of government agents monitor citizens’ online activity.
It is impossible to surf the Internet for information about democracy movements, for instance. Typing “Tiananmen Square” into a search engine could get you arrested.
It’s always right to worry about government power, but national security efforts aren’t always evil.