Sunday, June 23, 2013

Motives Aside, the NSA Should Not Spy on Us

Motives Aside, the NSA Should Not Spy on Us:
You need not suspect the motives of those responsible for NSA
surveillance to detest what they are doing. In fact, we may have
more to fear from spies acting out of patriotic zeal than those
acting out of power lust or economic interest: Zealots are more
likely to eschew restraints that might compromise their righteous
For the sake of argument, we may assume that from President
Obama on down, government officials sincerely believe that
gathering Americans’ telephone and Internet data is vital to the
people’s security. Does that make government spying okay?
No, it doesn’t.
“Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force.
Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for
a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.” Although often
attributed to George Washington, that famous quotation
was probably
was not uttered by him
. Nevertheless, its value lies in what it
says, not in who said it.
At best, government represents a risk to the people it rules.
Even under a tightly written constitution and popular vigilance —
both of which are easier to imagine than to achieve — government
officials will always have the incentive and opportunity to push
the limits and loosen the constraints.
But if their purpose is to protect us, why worry?
It doesn’t take much imagination to answer to this question. A
purported cure can be worse than the disease. Who would accept the
placement of a surveillance camera in every home as a way of
preventing crime? By the same token, gathering data on everyone
without probable cause in order to locate possible terrorists
should be abhorrent to people who prize their freedom and
Since we’re assuming pure motives, we’ll ignore the specter of
deliberate abuse. In our hypothetical case, no one would use the
information in a way not intended to promote the general welfare.
Pure motives, however, do not rule out error. So the danger remains
that innocent people could have their lives seriously disrupted —
or worse — by a zealous agent of government who sees an ominous
pattern in someone’s data where none in fact exists.
Author Nassim
Nicholas Taleb
 points out that human beings are more
likely to see order in randomness than vice versa. As a result, a
blameless individual could have his life turned upside down by a
bureaucrat who goes the extra mile to ensure that no terrorist act
occurs on his watch. Think of the turmoil created for those falsely
accused of the bombing at the Atlanta Olympic games and of sending
anthrax letters after the 9/11 attacks.
The odds of such an error for any particular individual may be
slight, but they are big enough if you put yourself into the
However, that is not the only reason to reject even a
well-intentioned surveillance state.
, who specializes in technology and civil liberties,
points out that a person who has nothing to hide from government
officials — if such a person actually exists — would still not have
a good reason to tolerate NSA surveillance, because the general
awareness that government routinely spies on us has an insidious
effect on society:
Even when it isn’t abused … the very presence of that spy
machine affects us and poisons us.… It’s slow and subtle, but
surveillance societies inexorably train us for helplessness,
anxiety and compliance. Maybe they’ll never look at your call logs,
read your emails or listen in on your intimate conversations.
You’ll just live with the knowledge that they
always could — and if you ever had anything
worth hiding, there would be nowhere left to hide it.
Is that the kind of society we want, one in which we assume a
government official is looking over our shoulders?
Because government is force — “a dangerous servant and a fearful
master” — it must be watched closely, even
— especially — when it does something you like.
But eternal vigilance is hard to achieve. People outside the system
are busy with their lives, and politicians generally can’t be
expected to play watchdog to other politicians. Therefore, at the
least, we need institutional constraints and transparency: No
secret warrants. No secret courts. No secret expansive
interpretations of laws and constitutional prohibitions.
This article
originally appeared
in the Future of Freedom