Sunday, August 19, 2007

Wave Hello to the Spy Satellite

I have to confess I've never understood the uproar over privacy issues. I'm law abiding. I don't particularly care whether my bald head shows up in a CIA database of satellite photographs. If NSA wants to keep track of my conversations with my brother about the Cleveland Indians' bullpen, that's OK. If things really, truly get Orwellian in this country some day, then we have a lot more to worry about than whether the government is listening into our conversations or taking pictures of our new cars.

Some people talk about an erosion of Americans' fundamental rights and liberties. As an aside, it's ironic to me that those who argue about rights often wade into hypocrisy. Some of those who insist on an expansive view of the right to bear arms are willing to suspend things like the right to a fair trial, while some of those who would like to pretend the Second Amendment doesn't exist want to read a right to privacy into every corner of the Constitution. OK, that's me the centrist talking. There are extremes on both sides of the political divide. But I probably sound like a conservative here to my more liberal friends when I question whether this alleged erosion of liberty is dangerous or is happening at all.

So, just what are our fundamental rights? They are enshrined in the Bill of Rights and in things like the Declaration of Independence, where the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are asserted. And then there's more than two hundred years of precedents set down by Court decisions. I'm not a Constitutional scholar, so this is just one layperson's opinion. But let's look at some of the recent developments related to the war on terror and how they impact our rights, namely the newly legal power of the Executive Branch to conduct wiretaps with diminished Legislative or Judicial oversight, and the changing rules about using "spy satellites" to capture and store photographs of domestic targets. Leaving aside the issue of oversight for a moment, what rights do these developments really impact?

The only impacted right that I can think of is the Second Amendment right to be "secure...against unreasonable searches and seizures." There's no explicit right to be secure against observation or surveillance, unreasonable or otherwise. The inalienable right to liberty, as enumerated in the Declaration and the Fifth Amendment, may be a little fuzzier, but there's little way to argue that increased surveilliance reduces liberty. Liberty impacts what we are free to do, not whether the government is able to watch us do it. It gets a little creepy to think about being followed or watched, and I suppose in a perfect world I'd rather that the government not be taking my pictures or recording my conversations, but it is not a perfect world. If increased surveilliance can help protect us from terrorist attack, it is worth it.

"Wait a minute," I say to myself. There must be things like Peeping Tom laws. I'm not going to research it. I have other things to do. But I'm pretty sure there are laws against looking into neighbors windows. At the very least, it's frowned upon. But that's just weird. There's a sniff test that says this stinks. People shouldn't go snooping around each others' houses, and the government shouldn't capriciously be peeping into our homes recording what we do. But that's not what this is about. It's about letting loose on the reins that society places on its own government, so that the government can do one of its primary jobs, which is protect the people. Allowing a little more snooping seems to have the potential to vastly improve our security, without adding much stink at all to society.

"But what if?" many will hasten to ask. What if this gets out of control, and surveilliance turns into unreasonable searches and seizures, or real curbs on our liberties. What if an unscrupulous administration (such as the current one?) ministerprets data it receives from surveilliance and turns it into an excuse to wrongfully arrest and imprison an innocent citizen? Current plans don't allow for that. Arrests still require warrants, for example. But it's possible to see things devolve in this direction.

So if there's anything to be alarmed about, it's the degree to which Congress is allowing the administration to operate without oversight. The wiretapping authorization is for six months. Congress should take greater care at before the end of that period to ensure that the increased ability to conduct surveillance on domestic targets does not get out of hand, and does not actually go so far as to impinge on our rights and liberties.

So, wave hello to the spy satellite, and whisper sweet nothings to the NSA. As long as there are adequate checks and balances to avoid the abuse of power by any one branch of government, then there are far more important things to worry about.

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