Most Americans are comfortable with the National Security Agency’s data mining program, and a sizable minority think the government should have more power to monitor communications. That’s the result of a new poll by the Pew Research Center, one that points to the trouble defenders of civil liberties will have rolling back the current surveillance apparatus.
56 percent of Americans said it would be appropriate for the government to monitor the phone records of American citizens, a number relatively unchanged from a 2002 poll. 41 percent said such monitoring would go too far. Additionally, 62 percent of Americans surveyed said that it was more important to err on the side of security, rather than privacy; only 34 percent disagreed.
The poll suggests that last week’s revelations about an NSA program that records and saves telephone and internet data have not changed people’s minds about the proper role of government monitoring. And this represents a challenge for civil libertarians like me, who have argued that government monitoring is unethical, and possibly unconstitutional.
Quite simply, most Americans are happy to trade some liberty for security.
The potential harms from the current NSA program are obvious. At present, the NSA saves data on personal communications of Americans and people around the world. This information includes who called whom, how long they talked, and where the phones were when the call was made.
Right now, those records are put onto a server, but are not immediately combed through — the NSA claims that it only looks at data if it gets a court order to do so. If you’ve called a number the NSA thinks might be connected to a terrorist, your data may be looked at; if not, it is supposed to sit on the server, gathering metaphorical dust until and unless the NSA thinks it’s important to look at it.
Unfortunately, even if the current regime has safeguards against a sweep of collected data, that data is still sitting there in the possession of the NSA. It would not be technically difficult for an unethical agent — or administration — to begin to look through that information without a warrant. They could use that information to find out details about your life — who you call, where you go, what you do on a daily basis. With the telephone and internet data the government is collecting, it would be simple to find out intimate details about almost every American.
This is dangerous — but it’s not obviously dangerous to most Americans. And as long as most Americans continue to be broadly supportive of massive government surveillance, politicians will have little incentive to add safeguards — especially when opponents can then demagogue politicians as “soft on terror.”
That doesn’t mean that all is lost. Believe it or not, the current NSA program is better than it was during the Bush Administration; back then, searches could be initiated on the say-so of the executive branch. Now the executive branch must go to a special court to get permission to snoop. , It’s not perfect — many criticize the FISA court for being effectively a rubber stamp, Still, the existence of the court makes it harder for a rogue administration to start sifting through personal data. The FISA court was strengthened despite American support of broad surveillance; it’s entirely possible to imagine stricter safeguards on the NSA’s access to collected data.
But while it’s possible to envision stricter safeguards on surveillance in the near-term, it’s unlikely that the program itself will go away. For that to happen, civil libertarians will have to demonstrate not just the existence of these programs, but why they are potentially more dangerous than the alternative. Simply shining light on the program is not enough; right now, most Americans will look into the spotlight, and like what they see.
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