Is the widespread collection of Americans’ phone records legal? The White House seems to think so despite Thursday’s revelation that a government review panel said it was not. That panel also recommended the government abandon the practice and destroy the records it has collected so far, according to the Associated Press story on the Daily Journal front page today.
This is an issue that is obviously not going away. And it shouldn’t.
One week ago, President Obama gave a speech about reforms to the National Security Agency. In it, he outlines the ongoing saga of the agency’s data collection process and considerable worries about how that data is used. It was a ranging speech with mentions of our Constitution, our relationships with other nations, our deliberate pride in privacy rights, the United States’ history of spying and how that has dramatically changed over time. It was a recognition that perhaps the NSA had overstepped its bounds and that we average Americans would have no idea of the depth of the agency’s tracking and data collection efforts if it weren’t for Edward Snowden.
I’m not sure how I feel about Snowden. On one hand, he is a whistle-blower. On the other hand, he is a traitor. But his revelations caused a dramatic shift in how we think about our personal information in this age of information. Many of us have no qualms about posting specific and personal information online for all to see. It is a new way of keeping connected. But it is a willing act. Many of us know that marketers constantly track our every move to see the best way to push new products on us. Some of us see that as a convenience. Others see that as a nuisance. Still others see that as a moral wrong. Yet there are ways to avoid such marketing measures and some engage in activities to protect their privacy from such businesses.
When it comes to the government spying on us — tracking our information, using it when deemed necessary and storing this data — that is when many of us grow uncomfortable.
Obama sensed this. He knows this. And while there is a need for spying and government secrecy when it comes to national security, the question has arisen — has the government gone too far?
In his speech, Obama outlined several tactics of vague detail that he plans to set into action. These tactics essentially boil down to the idea, “Action plan, more study.” But the fact that he addressed the NSA and is willing to begin some additional level of discussion is a positive first step.
However, if it were not for Snowden’s revelations, this is not the uncomfortable conversation Obama would naturally pursue. The exponential growth of information gathering sparked by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the ability afforded by technological advances may have brought it to light in another avenue, it should be noted.
One passage in Obama’s speech was particularly alarming to me.
“The review group recommended that our current approach be replaced by one in which the providers or a third party retain the bulk records, with government accessing information as needed. Both of these options pose difficult problems. Relying solely on the records of multiple providers, for example, could require companies to alter their procedures in ways that raise new privacy concerns. On the other hand, any third party maintaining a single consolidated database would be carrying out what’s essentially a government function, but with more expense, more legal ambiguity, potentially less accountability, all of which would have a doubtful impact on increasing public confidence that their privacy is being protected.”
The idea that the government would entrust such data to a third party reveals much. First of all, Obama is correct in saying it raises new privacy concerns. There would be no “third party” or company I would trust with such information unless it was run by Mother Teresa and even then I would question its selection of board members, employees and affiliates. But the essence of what I find alarming is that Obama seemingly admitted that U.S. government cannot be trusted with this information. If we cannot trust our own government with collecting, storing and using information to keep us safe, then perhaps we are in more trouble than we think.
Jon Mays is the editor in chief of the Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Jon on Twitter @jonmays.