Blown To Bits

The Politics of Surveillance

Sunday, April 27th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

I used to think that conservatives would oppose ubiquitous government surveillance. I figured it was the left that would be watching to make sure I was not smoking in the wrong place or saying something bad about the wrong people. That image of the politics of surveillance is outdated.

Today it is the right that wants the government to have carte blanche to listen in on our conversations. The rationale, of course, is that the government will keep us safe from terrorists if only we let it know everything we are saying. We should like being watched, to paraphrase Blown to Bits, because it means we are being watched over.

The Protect America Act, a six-month extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or FISA, expired recently. Here is one of the recent conservative rants on this subject, by Cliff May: “The law that gave America’s intelligence agencies the authority to freely monitor the communications of foreign terrorists abroad expired in February. A bill to restore that authority passed the Senate by a solidly bipartisan 68-to-29 majority. A bipartisan majority in the House would almost certainly vote in favor of the same measure but Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) —for more than two months—has used the power of her office to stop members from voting.” Another of the same ilk, by Robert Novak, describes the law as making it possible for the government to “continue eavesdropping on suspected foreign terrorists.”What such capsule summaries fail to mention is that the laws make it possible to eavesdrop on foreign terrorists by legalizing eavesdropping on anyone at all, including Americans, talking about anything at all, as long as the bits cross the US border. As EPIC’s summary explains, “[The Protect America Act] permits the warrantless surveillance of Americans when the surveillance is ‘directed at’ someone believed to be outside the United States—whether that person outside the United States is an American or not.” That means your emails and VoIP conversations with your family traveling abroad. And don’t think they don’t have enough agents to be listening in on you talking to your spouse—automated voice recognition is good enough now to recognize when you are mentioning bombs or Islam, however humorously.The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, but it does not require ceding to the government the authority to listen to Americans talking to Americans when they have done nothing to arouse suspicion. The conservatives should be ashamed of themselves for advocating that we surrender our Fourth Amendment rights by implying that these proposals don’t apply to us. They do.The limits of government surveillance should figure into the presidential campaign. Would the Dems take a stand on privacy and liberty? I’ll bet they wouldn’t, and that if any debate moderator were to pose the question, they too would tell us, in so many words, that the only way to keep us safe from terrorist attacks is to empower Big Brother to the max.

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