Do you remember the beginning of the Bourne Ultimatum?

… [the CIA] detects Ross inquiring about “Blackbriar” with a colleague over his cell phone. … Noah Vosen arrives at the Blackbriar offices and takes command of their primary analyst team who immediately extract all possibly known intelligence on Simon Ross in an attempt to trace his knowledge of Blackbriar back to its source. Vosen instructs the analysts to … gather intelligence on Ross and work to tap his phone lines and hack his e-mails.

— from The Bourne Directory

I always knew this technology existed and was in use by intelligence agencies. I work in computers, and understand how easy it is for data transmission across the Internet to be intercepted, I’ve actually seen it done. So I keep asking myself, why did the recent revelation that U.S. government agencies have been actively surveilling this kind of information strike me so hard?

Well, maybe it’s the scope of the activity. I mean, it’s one thing when we watch fictional accounts of CIA technical analysts like Garcia from Criminal Minds hack into an unsub’s email when the team in search for any leads to put this scumbag behind bars. We know it’s not legal, but at least it is targeted, and in the interest of saving that woman who’s been held captive for three days and will die if she doesn’t get her medicine within the next 12 hours. The BAU just needs a clue to send them in the right direction, it’s not like they will use this intel for evidence at trial. And it’s just TV.

I am not even justifying the above scenario, but use it only as an example of hacking that I knew can happen, and always assumed probably does. However, when we consider a full blown program of recording, and storing for perpetuity, data from an entire population, just to have it, the picture is very different. Computer intelligence is so advanced that this data can be constantly used to search for hot terms — as in the Blackbriar illustration — and as storage capabilities are continually increased, the information collected can be retroactively searched targeting a subject (say, who discussed topics such as ‘gay marriage’ or ‘marijuana’) or an individual (let’s find out what uncouth and non-politically correct things so-and-so once said about anything that can help smear their reputation).

Monday morning I read the Guardian‘s article “Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations” and I cried.

I posted a few comments on social media, to the effect that I hoped the story does not become about destroying the life of this man, who I believe was driven by his conscience to do what he considered to be in the public interest. But whether you consider Snowden a hero or a traitor, the point is, that part of the discussion is only tangential to the main debate: should this kind of surveillance be taking place?

In my humble opinion, absolutely not, and here are the main reasons why not:

It is expressly against the U.S. Constitution.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

— Amendment IV, The United States Constitution

The Fourth Amendment states without question that persons and effects (such as data) shall not be violated without reasonable cause. There is no reasonable cause to be collecting the data transmissions of every person in the U.S. and every person with whom they communicate outside, with elaborate algorithms that can parse through this data to find keywords that can trigger deeper investigation of persons who never raised any cause.

The old argument, “oh, I have nothing to hide…” is irrelevant.

The Bill of Rights never considered what you have to hide, but rather what the government has a right to take from you. Maybe you don’t have anything to hide today, but will tomorrow. Maybe you don’t realize what and how information can be used against you in the future. Maybe it’s not about you per se, but rather every American. Maybe it’s about your child, who takes sees a therapist and may someday run afoul of the government because of protesting another illegal war. The government will have the ability to run a search on all the data stored for years and years to see what they might find that will allow them to smear the reputation of your child by the revelation of this personal information.

Be careful what liberties you willingly give away.

You might not be able to get them back when you need them. If we allow the government to erode our rights, little by little, they all become meaningless. It could happen so gradually that we might not see it happen, but I certainly hope the next generation of Americans will grow up to believe in the meaning and greatness of the U.S. Constitution just like I did, believe in it, and not see it as a relic of the past as the sum of the disregard for it we have witnessed over the last eleven years. If the government only needs to say “terrorism” whenever they want more power, in a few years, we all might be surprised how few rights remain.

“With liberty and justify for all.”

Land of the free,” right? I’ve said it over and over, principles are something we hold onto even when it’s not convenient. We cannot be willing to accept something when it does not affect us, but then complain when it does. Even a seemingly insignificant infringement upon our rights must be met with staunch objection in order to preserve the balance of freedom from a nearly omnipotent intelligence system. Benjamin Franklin is quoted as having said “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

A beacon of liberty and Democracy throughout the world.

The U.S. government cannot betray the highest law of its own land without disclosure to its citizens. That is not a Democracy. The U.S. government works for the citizens, the citizens are not subjects. Thus we must know what actions the government takes, because it is our responsibility in a Democracy to debate and decide if they are correct. We are supposed to hold ourselves and our government to a the highest standard, and that is what makes us great. Otherwise let’s admit we are no better than any other country.

Why so secret?

If the actions of these government agencies are so morally correct, then why is all of this surveillance part of a secret mission? Now, I know the first argument is secrecy is mandated for the national security. Really? How? For example, our military is needed for national security, but the fact that they run training missions in not kept secret. General information (and a surveillance operation of digital transmissions is very general) does not offer specifics to put any kind of security in jeopardy, all it does is raise the issue of whether or not is should be happening.

The whole point of warrants (as required by the Fourth Amendment) is that one person or one entity is not supposed to be deciding everything. We are supposed to have checks on unlimited power. If you believe this whistle-blower was wrong to reveal the information he had, recognize that he had that power, and as one person, could’ve done much more dangerous things with that info. Isn’t the whole point that no one should hold all of that power?

Finally, it might be trite of cliché, but I think nonetheless apropos to recall a variation of the old poem about German intellectuals who followed the Nazi’s as they rose to power.

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller

I am at heart an idealist, and as a consequence very cynical. I find the courage needed to stand up against any kind of behemoth most admirable, and while hardly in the same scope, I choose to say something when I see something that is very wrong. Because I believe in the American mythology that I was brought up learning about, and these developments do not support that. Personally, I think Edward Snowden is a hero.
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