With leaker Edward Snowden revealing to the world that the National Security Agency has been both monitoring phone records for all Americans and obtaining emails, videos, voice chats and other private communications between American citizens and those outside the United States under the so-called PRISM program, controversy has broken out over the scope of government surveillance.
Many on the right and the left have argued that these programs are necessary to curb terrorism. Both Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner of Ohio have proclaimed that Snowden is a traitor for revealing the existence of the programs. Both Republican House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers of Illinois and President Barack Obama say that the programs have stopped terrorist attacks.
Meanwhile, others argue that these programs do not threaten basic civil liberties at all, and that Americans have nothing to fear. David Brooks of the New York Times says that the real threat to Americans isn't surveillance, but cynicism: "Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric ..."
The truth is far less black and white than all of this. These programs may stop terror attacks; it is likely they have done so. But are they necessary to stop terror attacks, or are they merely the most convenient means for the government to do so? We all want Americans to be safe. But we also would like our emails to be private. Are those two goals mutually exclusive?
Here are the top seven reasons to worry about these federal surveillance programs.
1. It's the federal government, and the federal government cannot be trusted with unlimited personal information. As we've seen from the IRS scandal, actors at any level of government can use information to target political opposition. Distrust of government isn't baseless cynicism. It's realism. The government is filled with human beings -- 1.4 million, at last count, who have top secret security clearances. Some are bound to be nasty. After all, if Boehner and Feinstein are right, and Snowden is a traitor, he had access to all that information, too.
2. Blanket surveillance does not mesh with the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment is quite clear on the notion that search and seizure must not be unreasonable. It is difficult to think of something more unreasonable than searching the private phone records and digital information of citizens who are suspected of nothing.