Sunday, May 27, 2018
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David Kushma

Government’s Big Data are a big deal

The NSA’s activities are legal; that doesn’t necessarily make them right

OBJECT866d1e39-1d45-497e-acb3-4768299fdcb8THE revelations of how much our government is spying on us leave Americans with tough choices about what we’re prepared to sacrifice to wage war on terrorism and preserve our security.

They also require us to confront what it means to be reduced to a tiny bit of Big Data — to have not only government bureaucracies but also private corporations define us by, and as, the sum total of our telephone calls and emails and text messages and Internet searches and chats.

But before we condemn such assaults on our freedoms, most notably the freedom to be left alone, we need to acknowledge our own willing complicity in the erosion of our privacy in an age of social media and instant digital communications.

Thanks to a self-styled whistle-blower named Edward Snowden, Americans have learned that for years, the government has logged virtually every phone call made in this country. The National Security Agency, it’s reported, also stores intelligence about online communications that supposedly involve foreigners.

These activities are legal. That doesn’t necessarily make them right.

The Obama Administration says data mining allows security analysts to discover patterns in communications traffic that identify terrorists and foil plots that would harm Americans. Such analysis, officials say, helped expose a planned terrorist attack on the New York City subway system in 2009.

President Obama assures us that the content of our calls and emails is not part of the searches — that the government is interested only in “metadata” that illustrate the big picture. To find out more, the government must get a court order. Advocates argue that paradoxically, the more data the government collects under these programs, the less anyone’s individual privacy is threatened.

I’d rather have that demonstrated than merely asserted. And if I must choose between national security and personal liberty, I want enough information to strike an appropriate balance.

Americans don’t have that information now. It’s hidden behind a wall of secrecy — political, bureaucratic, judicial. We’re told, in effect, that we can’t handle the truth; that we must trust our government to respect our rights. That needs to change.

Our government must show us, not just tell us, why its data gathering can’t be restricted to known or suspected terrorists here and abroad, rather than extended to innocent, law-abiding Americans. Who has access to these data? Other police agencies? Private contractors like Mr. Snowden? How long does the government hold onto the records it collects? How is the information protected?

We need to know more about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the top-secret body that approved the domestic data collection; why can’t we see summaries of its opinions, limited to protect legitimately confidential information? And why can’t phone and online companies be more forthcoming about the data they share with government?

Mr. Obama, a scholar of constitutional law, says he would “welcome” a national conversation about intelligence gathering. He can lead it by describing how the data mining programs work.

Lawmakers of both parties have accepted the worst excesses and abuses of the overly broad Patriot Act passed in response to 9/11, rather than risk being labeled soft on terrorism. They can atone now by holding useful hearings — not partisan sideshows — on the growth of the surveillance state under not only this president, but also his predecessors.

Congress can tighten the Patriot Act in a way that would explicitly link data collection to terrorism, rather than authorize fishing expeditions. The Supreme Court also could get a say, now that the American Civil Liberties Union has sued to get the phone program stopped and its records destroyed.

Declaring Mr. Snowden either a patriot or a traitor is too simplistic. He has incited a necessary public debate on what he melodramatically calls the government’s “architecture of oppression.”

But that responsibility never should have fallen to a low-level computer technician; he shouldn’t have had access to such highly classified information at all. And now he faces prosecution for breaking the law.

Some Americans express outrage over how the government’s pervasive electronic intelligence collection could affect them. But the dilution of our personal privacy is not always a matter of official intrusion. Too often, it’s self-inflicted.

I remain routinely astonished at the kinds of personal information my friends (actual and designated) voluntarily disclose on Facebook. It often includes sensitive medical data that in a previous era we would have communicated only to our doctor and our spouse. At other times, I’m amazed that some folks think anyone else would care about the daily trivia they feel compelled to share about themselves.

And we continue to remind supposedly tech-savvy young people that posting a photo of yourself on the Internet, drunk and half-dressed at a party, is probably not the best career move, unless you aspire to a job in the adult-entertainment industry.

It doesn’t stop there. Everything we post or tweet or buy online gets sucked up by the marketing arms of Google and Facebook and Amazon and Apple, so they can figure out ever more efficient ways to sell us stuff we don’t need.

“The bigger question is whether our expectation of privacy has morphed into something other than what it was when the case law developed,” Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor told me last week. “Do we need to revamp that?

“As citizens, we’re not voting on every single topic, especially when it comes to national security,” she said. “You entrust your elected officials to make these calls.”

If we truly want to safeguard our privacy, that process starts with us. But if we’re caught up in a dragnet cast by a government that has no particular reason to suspect us, we at least need to know about it.

A wise and admirable man once warned against “a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide.” More recently, he remarked that the excesses of “a perpetual war” on terror “will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways.”

Fine words, Mr. President. Please live up to them.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: or on Twitter @dkushma1

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