The NSA Scandal & How It Affects Us All

The government has been secretly collecting your phone contacts from your intimate friends to political associations to doctors to product suppliers, etc., etc. The government knows not only who you are calling but how long you talk, how often you call and where you call from.

The National Security Agency (NSA) admits to harvesting up to three billion such phone records a day. They are also collecting and storing our e-mails, including attachments like photos. What in the world for? They say they are looking for terrorists.

Consider who you have called or e-mailed in the last month. The government can learn a great deal about you from just the people you call and subject lines in your e-mails. Your so-called “metadata” can reveal peculiar tastes and associations that you may consider hidden from all but your closest friends – and now thousands of government monitors.

Ironically, the actual content of your calls or e-mails is usually not needed to determine the reason and subject of such communications. When you call the NRA or the Sierra Club frequently, or your political party headquarters (especially if it’s the Tea Party!), the likely purpose of the call is pretty clear.

For citizens with unpopular political or religious views, repeated calls or e-mails to certain groups or churches indicate an obvious interest. From intimate affairs to political associations, the purposes of most communications are self-evident, particularly when they are placed within a mosaic of all of your contacts and calls.


At issue are the massive surveillance programs through which the government has seized data reportedly on every call made, and e-mail sent, by every citizen.  What we don’t know is how long the surveillance at this level has been going on. Perhaps it’s not illegal, but it is despicable!

These programs allow citizens to be tracked by their associations and communications. In other words, total transparency of citizens in a new fishbowl society. In response to the outcry last week, President Obama and other government officials assured citizens that they have nothing to fear from the government collecting their phone and e-mail data. Sounds like a page from George Orwell’s “1984.”

The debate was like a scene out of a movie, with politicians on both sides of the aisle trying to convince people to give up their fears and learn to accept living in the artificial environment created for them. Of course, Obama claimed that these are only “modest intrusions” in the new concept of government-approved privacy.

He explained that you cannot have “100% privacy and 100% safety.” He insisted that so long as the government does not read your e-mails or listen to the content of your phone calls, then there is no danger to privacy. Likewise, Senator Lindsay Graham scoffed at the notion of any concern over privacy – so long as you don’t call a terrorist.

It is true that the Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that there is less protection afforded to phone records. In the years since that ruling, the government typically used so-called “national security letters” to seize phone records for individuals who became material to federal investigations. What the Obama administration has effectively done is to issue a national security letter for every citizen in America.

Recently, the government admitted to putting certain media reporters under surveillance and seizing their phone and e-mail records, in what is viewed by many as an extreme attack on the principles of the free press. Yet many citizens remained quiet as the government called reporters potential criminals, supposedly for reporting on leaks of classified information. Then, thanks to the NSA scandal, Americans learned that the government was gathering the same personal information on them and all other citizens.

This new government-approved privacy model protects only the content of your phone calls and e-mails – unless the government wants to read them at some point. Before we are lulled back to sleep by our leaders, it is worth noting what we have unknowingly (until now) given up.

In his press conference, Obama repeated the siren call of all authoritarian figures throughout history: While these powers are great, our motives are benign, he assured us. So there you have it. The government is promising to better protect you if you just surrender this measure of privacy.

Unfortunately, we’ve already lost that element of our privacy, and there’s almost no way the Obama administration will stop harvesting this personal data. To stop it, there would have to be a huge nationwide class-action suit that goes all the way to the Supreme Court, and a favorable decision from the Justices, which could take years.

Alternatively, we have to wait until Obama leaves office in January 2017. And then we have to hope that the next president will agree to stop it. That’s a long time and a big gamble!

Posted 06-17-2013 3:59 PM by Gary D. Halbert
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