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The Question of Big Brother

June 2, 2015

By Spencer Bradley ’16

During the past few weeks, the Senate has been debating the House-approved bill: The USA Freedom Act. The bill is a reaction to the actions of the Obama administration and a revision to the much maligned USA Patriot Act, extending some provisions of the Patriot Act while limiting the power of the NSA to gather bulk-data. What does it mean to gather bulk data? This unpopular practice is the mass collection of communication, searches and any data on citizens without a warrant. While not used on every citizen, it essentially means that Americans have a “file” of sorts being collected en masse. The USA Freedom Act seeks to end the mass collection of data by the government, turning the task over to the phone companies and requiring actual evidence as to whether or not the suspect in question has probable cause as to necessitate government seizure of the data. In short, it requires a glorified warrant. In doing so, it forces the intelligence community to become more transparent about its methodology and its scope in collecting data.

Earlier this week, Senator Rand Paul, the Republican/Libertarian senator of Kentucky, engaged in a filibuster against the bill and its renewal of numerous Patriot Act provisions, such as roving wire-taps and the ability to monitor “lone wolf” terrorists. Paul advocated an expiration of the Patriot Act and an ending to all data monitoring by the government, including any data monitoring permitted by the Freedom Act. While Paul’s position currently enjoys 27% approval over the position of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Republican who advocates for retaining the original model of the Patriot Act (a position that polls at a mere 12% support), Paul’s position is the minority. An overwhelming amount of Americans support modifying surveillance, but many also support extending surveillance. As Wilson reports, “Forty-two percent of registered voters said they favor extending the programs with some modifications, including 50 percent of self-identified Republican men, 41 percent of Tea Party backers and 40 percent of those between18-29”. This indicates that there may be a divide between Republicans and their libertarian counterparts. Regardless, Senator Paul’s filibuster allowed Patriot Act provisions to expire, effectively killing the current bill, forcing it to be reworked and voted on again.

However, what has the White House said to all of this? President Obama has voiced his support for the Patriot Act, citing bi-partisan support, the opinions of national security experts and his own war on terror to legitimize the bill. He has criticized Senator Paul’s filibustering in a not-so-subtle barb, calling out “certain senators.”

Neglecting debate over whether the Freedom Act is superior to the now defunct Patriot Act, and discussion of whether new amendments to the bill will be passed, realpolitik tells us it will be passed in some shape or form. Whether or not the Freedom Act becomes as strong as the Patriot Act, and whether or not the amendments will influence this, are irrelevant topics so long as data collection remains on the table at all. Despite claims from the FBI and other sources, there is not evidence that the mass harvesting of data has benefitted citizens at all. Ergo, the question remains: Why is data collection vital to the United States intelligence service and national security?

The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and requires any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause. Probable cause here is the important distinction, as it requires a reason for intrusion. There is no reason for this intrustion. While the White House offers the FBI’s testimony as support, one must question whether this support is objective, considering the FBI’s use of these tools gives incentive to keeping them whether or not they pass ethical stress tests or political condemnation. While the White House further speaks of Al-Qaeda and ISIL as reasons for intrustion, one must question how many terrorists are caught and how much damage is prevented by the mass collection of communication.

Thoughout world history, it has been shown that unchecked surveillance usually leads to abuses of power. This abuse of power, rather than limiting and damaging the efforts of actual “threats,” limit and damage the livelihood of everyday people. Why did we condemn and reject McCarthy era surveillance, yet we accept this? The old adage of having nothing to hide is not sufficient here. Having nothing to hide, is the same as condemning freedom of speech as one has nothing to say. Further, presidential candidate Lindsay Graham has stated, “If I’m president of the United States and you’re thinking about joining Al Qaeda or ISIL, I’m not going to call a judge. I’m going to call a drone, and we will kill you.” Hilariously inane; yet, it becomes perfectly plausible if data collection is normalized and encouraged. Stalinist politics wherein the citizen is considered a threat for thinking outside of the dogma is inherently undemocratic and dangerous to a pluralistic society.

Senator Paul may be wrong about many things, but the reailty that government maintains access to every aspect of its citizens’ private lives – even if it merely outsources the data to corporations – is not a policy change.

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