Viewpoints: When will Americans say enough snooping?

Published: Tuesday, Jun. 18, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 9A

The contortionist logic behind the government snooping that recently has dominated our news is enough to choke the very Internet government uses to conduct its surveillance. At what point do Americans say enough? Can Americans even answer that question honestly?

I'm not sure anyone is being completely honest in this debate because the lens through which we're processing it leaves unanswered the hardest of all questions, the ones required we ask of ourselves.

Last week's Pew Research poll found 62 percent of respondents support the surveillance programs. What causes us to trust government data stalkers, yet so distrust government on, say, Obamacare, or high-speed rail?

Curiously, the poll found Democrats more supportive of NSA data-mining than Republicans, by a 64-to-52 percent margin. That's dramatically different from the Bush era, when a 2006 Pew poll found 75 percent of Republicans supportive of such surveillance vs. 37 percent of Democrats. The stench of our two-faced political biases is hard to ignore.

Media outlets apoplectic over privacy invasion, including their own, doggedly dug up everything they could about NSA leaker Edward Snowden's girlfriend. Yet, "news" consumers voyeuristically gobbled up every detail of her life, giving media outlets justification for a privacy violation worthy of the NSA itself. Who is the intrusive party in that chicken-and-egg scenario, a scenario in which we haven't even the excuse of saying we're watching for terrorists?

Last week a Dunkin' Donuts customer posted a video of herself outrageously demanding free food because she didn't get a receipt the night before. The video went viral while demonstrating the perverse nature of our digital culture. With proctological voraciousness, Web surfers uncovered and exposed the customer's entire private life, even her home address.

The twist, of course, is how so many of us absorbed by social media post such personal information. What does that say about Americans insisting on privacy while behaving like attention-starved children?

Should we have an expectation of privacy? More accurately, are we losing our privacy or, as technology metastasizes, is it becoming harder and harder to maintain the illusion of privacy?

Today's paradigms present a challenging dilemma. Would the framers of the Constitution have approached the Fourth Amendment differently had they known a world of nukes, dirty bombs and planes flying into buildings? Perhaps, but if we justify abrogating the Fourth Amendment because today's world is different, couldn't we make that same argument about the Second Amendment?

The ACLU has tried for years to challenge the constitutionality of our surveillance laws but has been successfully blocked by government. By keeping secret whose privacy has been invaded, no one can say they've been violated, thus there's no standing in court. How can we determine constitutionality if government continually blocks the legal path by which we can have the debate eavesdrop supporters (including the president) say we should?

How can data-mining supporters say we need to have a legitimate debate and then decry Snowden as a traitor when we couldn't possibly have this debate without him blowing the whistle? Which is it? Traitor? Patriot? Traitriot?

In truth, we'd likely know nothing of these programs were it not for whistle-blowers or intrepid journalists. How can we have a national debate on privacy invasion if we don't know to what extent privacy is being invaded? Other than what lawmakers tell us, and they only started talking once their cover was blown.

Can we trust government to be transparent when government refuses to be transparent until it's been caught?

And then, should we believe their familiar response? Overlook what we've done, good citizen, and trust us to exercise power in the dark lest we be attacked. Yet, they can't provide enough specifics proving their programs have worked; it's classified.

The president assures that government surveillance programs are safeguarded while Congress has been "consistently informed on exactly what we're doing." Yet, only 47 of 100 senators attended last Thursday's NSA briefing on these programs. The other 53 apparently wanted to fly back home for a long Father's Day weekend.

How do they vote on programs on which they've chosen not to be briefed? We don't even know who played hooky. It's classified. But then, what's more important: Doing one's job or returning home to fundraise to keep one's job?

Maybe none of these programs is going anywhere, anytime soon because no president, no Congress wants to go down in history as being "on duty" when another 9/11 happens. Legacy trumps security trumps liberty? That's quite the Rochambeau.

It's not that government can't sometimes act in secret, but government hasn't the right to implement incredibly consequential policies discordant with the country we're supposed to be while concealing their own actions from the very people to whom they're democratically accountable.

But I dare say it's not gone far enough for us to care. Yet.

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at brucemaiman@gmail.com.

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Read more articles by Bruce Maiman



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