Editorial: The NSA and Your Data; There’s Plenty to Worry About

A little more than a week ago, President Obama held a news conference during which he sought to reassure the American people that the National Security Agency surveillance programs that have been revealed in recent months are lawful, essential to national security and present no threat to the privacy of ordinary citizens. He announced steps to make the programs more transparent so that the public would be more “comfortable” with them.

Count us as distinctly uncomfortable, at least on the privacy count. Based on what has been disclosed so far, it seems safe to conclude that the NSA has the capability to piece together a fairly detailed portrait of any individual American through its surveillance of telephone and Internet records, even without listening to the content of calls or reading electronic messages themselves.

And, as a recent article in The New York Review of Books suggests, there are also strong indications that the agency, or at least individual analysts, may well be able to target and access the contents of individual communications without obtaining the warrant that is ostensibly required from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

That remains to be demonstrated conclusively, but it stands to reason that what has been revealed so far by Edward J. Snowden, a former NSA contractor, might be just the tip of the intelligence-gathering iceberg.

Even so, what’s the problem, especially if, as government officials assert, these tools have proven effective in disrupting terrorist plots since they were deployed following the 9/11 attacks?

There are several answers to that question. One is that there are serious privacy implications when the government collects and stores information about Americans’ associational habits when they are not suspected of wrongdoing. Who our friends are, where we seek medical treatment for what ailments, with whom we have romantic attachments, where our political sympathies lie, what religious beliefs we hold are the intimate stuff of private life. All these things can be revealed through the patterns as well as the content of routine communications.

A second is that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution forbids this kind of government intrusion without a warrant issued on probable cause, one that describes specifically what is to be searched. This was a matter of no small importance to the nation’s founders, having themselves been subject to just such treatment by the English. The principle they enunciated is timeless even as times change.

Even if this information is being collected for the best of purposes, there is the real possibility that it could be abused. Assume, for a moment, that a disaffected NSA analyst goes rogue and figures out how to sort the information at her disposal in a way that targets not a terrorist threat but an enemies list of adherents to a particular political party or those who show an affinity for owning firearms or those whose religious preference runs to the fringe. It does not take a great leap of imagination to fear that this information could be used in a variety of extremely damaging ways.

Beyond that are risks of systemic abuse. A recent New York Times story detailed how the NSA has been under pressure from a number of other government agencies to share information in the pursuit of their own investigations into drug trafficking, money laundering, cyber-attacks and the like, investigations that sometimes have only tangential connections to possible terrorist activities. Officials say these attempts have been largely rebuffed, but information-sharing with other agencies about the targets of their investigations would significantly widen the information net in which innocent people could be caught up.

These dangers have been pointed out numerous times before. But there is another and perhaps more pernicious effect, which is that the knowledge that one’s communications and digital trail are constantly monitored can alter the very nature of mental life and extinguish freedom of thought. If one never feels free to express one’s deepest emotions or most passionately held opinions except face to face, if one is afraid to pursue free inquiry because Internet searches are susceptible to government scrutiny, then there is a danger that we will fall into a way of life familiar in the totalitarian regimes of the past century, when we do Big Brother’s work for him by censoring ourselves.