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January 21, 2014

We shouldn't trade privacy for security

By Cary Brunswick
The Daily Star

---- — If it were not for Edward Snowden, President Barack Obama would not have been making a major speech Friday about the government’s massive spying program, acknowledging that debate about surveillance practices is important and will “make us stronger.”

Yes, if it were not for Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency’s collection of phone and Internet data on hundreds of millions of Americans would still be a government secret. In addition, if you believe the president, without Snowden’s leaking of the classified information even he would still be in the dark about it.

So, it is unfortunate that the president did not offer some kind of deal to Snowden, who remains in exile in Russia while facing charges of theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.

It was last June when Snowden, a whistleblower, not a criminal, gave an estimated 1.7 million documents related to surveillance and other NSA operations to several journalists. The revelations did spur some debate about the secret spying, but the fact that it did not cause more Americans to be outraged is a real shock.

It is clear that most people are willing to give their privacy if they feel safer from terrorism as a result. That response may be understandable as part of human nature, but it has never been the American way.

We have always prided ourselves that our republic was founded on the principles of freedom, and we have chided and often fought nations that routinely spied on their citizens, making the concept of privacy meaningless.

On Friday, the president addressed that very dichotomy.

“It may seem sometimes that America is being held to a different standard, and the readiness of some to assume the worst motives by our government can be frustrating. No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens into account.

“But let us remember that we are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront in defending personal privacy and human dignity.”

Yes, we are held to a different standard, but now apparently we have been willing to toss that aside for the same reasons as those less-free nations we criticize.

It is hard to understand why Americans so easily accepted the trade of their freedom for security. I have heard people say, ``hey, I don’t have anything to hide, so if the NSA wants to check on the dinner plans I made in a phone call or text, so be it.’’

Speaking Friday, Obama announced some reforms to the NSA spying, but overall the speech left the program intact, much to the dismay of the people and groups who do care about their freedom and privacy.

The president said he would place some restrictions on the way the NSA gains access to Americans’ phone records, adding that he would like to get the surveillance operation into the private sector and out of the government’s hands.

The latter idea offers no consolation at all. Corporations already are spying on the lifestyle choices of Americans. We certainly do not need the NSA to turn its surveillance program to what would amount big business.

Obama vowed to terminate the government’s storage of the data it collects from spying on Americans’ telephone calls, and mandate judicial review before it can examine that data. However, how would we ever know that is happening, since it all is kept secret? We would need another Snowden to let Americans know what really is occurring.

In addition, the president is leaving it up to Congress to tackle any substantial reforms to NSA spying, which is like letting the fox guard the henhouse. It was Congress, after all, that approved the laws on which the justification for citizen surveillance is based. Lawmakers are not likely to do much to curtail spying, no matter whether it’s being done by the NSA or some big-brother corporation.

The NSA spying program was left unscathed last month when two federal judges offered opposing rulings on its legality. Appeals are now in motion.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon said it best, however, in ruling that the government’s spying was unconstitutional. He called the ``almost-Orwellian technology’’ that allows the government to collect, store and analyze phone metadata “at best, the stuff of science fiction.’’

It is too bad that “stuff’’ has become political fact instead.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.