Say no to the surveillance state

In June it seemed as though the world hadn’t quite figured out whether to hail Edward Snowden as a whistle-blowing hero, a traitorous snitch, or some mixed-up dude with delusions of grandeur.

But the fact is, the U.S. government has been eating its own — We, the People, upon whom it spies in the name of “safety.”

Per the L.A. Times, National Security Agency director Gen. Keith Alexander insisted to Congress that the agency’s broad collection of our phone records under the PRISM program helped stop “dozens of terrorist plots” cold and that while metadata contain records of all calls made or received, the records do not contain the calls’ contents. The agency needs a reasonable suspicion of terrorist connections to use phone records, Alexander said. Telecomm companies turn over data under periodic court orders of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court; NSA requires no separate order to use the data.

“We don’t get to swim through the data,” the L.A. Times quoted him as saying.

“But he also told the Senate Appropriations Committee that only ‘a few’ intelligence reports were based on the phone records,” the paper reported earlier in its June 12 story.

A few days earlier, Snowden, a systems administrator working for the NSA through Booz Allen Hamilton, exposed the datacollection program.

The outrage was immediate — with repercussions for Snowden following close behind. He fled to Hong Kong.

But no one should be surprised at this. The tools for a surveillance state were already in the government’s box, having been placed there bit by bit from the time of the Alien and Sedition Acts, to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and particularly after the PATRIOT Act, pushed by an imperialistic Bush and rushed into law by a cowed Congress. Among other haunting provisions, the PATRIOT Act authorized the collection of calling and other records. This constitutional poison pill came wrapped up as sweet safety candy.

No one should be surprised that Obama has expanded what Bush began. Indeed, the only surprise is that some people apparently are surprised.

I take that back. There is one more surprise in this twisted tangle of the Constitution’s tatters. I am surprised to hear people again bleat out the same sheep song that was heard when the PATRIOT Act hit the stage. The song goes like this: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

First, that isn’t true. Second, it isn’t the point. The presumption of innocence is. Due process is. The Fourth Amendment is. Does anyone remember those things, which are among the very bedrock principles that make our republic mighty in the world, which will keep us safe long after our government has failed us, provided we do not surrender them?

Third, as Peter Ludlow detailed in his column for the New York Times, the government isn’t the only entity spying on you: private intelligence companies carry out the bulk of such work. And, according to Ludlow, the biggest gun in their arsenal is deception, deployed to undermine a client’s critics, and to manipulate people in a way that would make a sociopath envious. It was a hacker who blew the lid off of one such company’s tactics. In a true testament to how backward we as a nation have our priorities, Jeremy Hammond now faces 10 years in federal prison.

So, it is offensive to hear people say that because I am not a terrorist, I shouldn’t mind if Uncle Sam trolls through my records. Perhaps, then, they require less abstract examples than Snowden’s big “hello, they are spying on you!” declaration.

Very well. Polygraphs. I did not say “lie detectors,” because there is no such thing. A polygraph measures certain vital stats, such as your heart rate and blood pressure when you are being asked questions by a skilled interrogator. The polygraphist then somehow divines whether a person is telling the truth or “blowing ink.”

In other words, while the machine part may detect stress, the human part makes an interpretation about what that means. It’s no mystery why courts don’t allow polygraph results as evidence; the only mystery is why so many people impart to them any weight at all.

And yet people take and trust polygraphs. Why? Because they have in this instance adopted that poisonous reasoning: If I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear. I haven’t committed a crime. I do not

plan on committing a crime. I value and respect good police work; I try to be a good citizen and assist law enforcement when called upon to do so. But I’m not taking a polygraph so I can be “ruled out.” I am not surrendering my DNA so I can be “ruled out.” I will not tolerate a GPS being slapped on my car just so the authorities can “make sure” that I am walking the straight and narrow. And I do not consent to the data-mining of my email and phone records so I can be “ruled out” as a terrorist. (Perhaps Uncle Sam would like to wear John Q. Public’s shoes for a minute: If the PRISM program is nothing to fear, then don’t hide it?)

An ACLU representative told me a few years back that if we allowed the government to install cameras in our living rooms, we might be safer, “but that’s not the world we live in.” (The ACLU in June sued Obama over the PRISM program, saying it goes beyond even the PATRIOT Act and — correctly — that it is “a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy.”)

I’m not allowing Uncle Sam to install a surveillance camera in my living room. I’m not supporting him doing the same in anyone else’s living room — even those folks whom I find “sketchy” and suspect of crimes.

All you fans of “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” — how about it? Are you down with that level of intrusion?

This intrusion is different from the phone-record scandal only by degrees, not by deed. Such a strategy would (I hope) bring home the real-world impact of an unconstitutional overreach that for some reason people currently view in the abstract. If it doesn’t, then the man from the ACLU is wrong: It is the world we live in.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is an award-winning journalist in Montrose, Colo.

From Katharhynn Heidelberg.