Alex Slawson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Vanderbilt Political Review. A senior majoring in political science and economics, Alex is passionate about writing and public policy.
In class last week, we debated the US government’s policy of spying on the digital and telephonic communications of its citizens. To a few, myself included, the fact that the NSA collects the phone records of millions of citizens daily and is spying on the internet communications of millions more, all without warrants, is alarming. However, most of the class was indifferent. “Why should I care if the government knows where I am or when I called my mom? I have nothing to hide.” My professor even retorted that, if I have such a problem with the government spying on me through my iPhone, then I should just not use it. “It’s your own choice,” he said.
When I think about this indifference to government spying, and in light of the new documentary on Edward Snowden, I can’t help but feel that Americans have become complacent. Our country has existed with guaranteed liberties for so long that people cannot imagine the possibility of those liberties being taken away. We have become complacent because many of us have never been affected by certain liberties given in the Bill of Rights. I have never protested. I have no desire to own a gun. I have never been tried by a jury, nor do I plan to be. Yet, even though I have not exercised these rights, I’d be upset if the government tried to take one of them away. That’s because the purpose of the Bill of Rights is to protect citizens from governmental overreach. These rights separate liberal democracies from totalitarian states, and they should be defended, tooth and nail, if the United States is to remain free.
However, some of these rights are being violated by the NSA. The 4th amendment says citizens are safe from unreasonable searches and seizures without a warrant, and that warrants can only be given upon proof of probable cause. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, our government, largely unbeknownst to the people, made a trade: less liberty for more security. But, whether or not the NSA’s spying has actually made us safer is extremely dubious. In reality, the trade off has been very one sided: our liberty, our right to privacy, has been infringed upon.
When my professor told me to stop using my cell phone, I fired back. “How would you feel if the government started reading all your mail? Would you stop sending letters and have your mailbox removed? What if the government started listening to your conversations? Would you stop speaking? Why should the privacy of one form of communication be guaranteed and not another?” My professor smirked, claiming I was using the “slippery-slope” fallacy and that my argument was far-fetched. Is it, though? Democracy depends on government being accountable to the people, but how can we hold a government agency, like the NSA, accountable if that agency is a master of keeping its actions secret. Not only are the actions of the NSA kept secret from the public, they’re also kept secret from our elected officials. What’s more, the one body in charge of regulating our intelligence community, the FISA court, is also secret! In this court, the government is the only advocate allowed to participate. There are no privacy advocates allowed.
Put bluntly, it is basically up to the intelligence agencies to regulate themselves. Here lies a blatant conflict of interest: the priority of these agencies is to protect America from attack, not to protect the privacy of Americans. Modern technology has given intelligence agencies the ability to collect information at a level they never could before. Given a way to make their jobs easier, the incentive to use these new tools, even if they violate the privacy of Americans, is too strong. When there’s a way, there’s a will. As technology continues to develop, intelligence agencies will adopt these technologies in order to do their jobs. If no one stands up to say “enough,” then our own government, in a well-meaning attempt to make our lives safer, may, eventually, completely eliminate our privacy. We must debate over how much of our privacy we are willing to give up for security, and that debate must begin now.
There will still be those who are unconcerned by our lack of privacy. “I’m not a terrorist! Why should I worry?” My first response is to read a George Orwell novel. No matter how far-fetched it may seem, the Bill of Rights is a safeguard against the type of state depicted in 1984. My second response is this: if we only fight for those rights which are our favorite, the rights that directly affect us, we may wake up one day and see that all those rights are gone. Privacy is a right, and I urge you to stand behind it.