In George Orwell's novel 1984, "Big Brother" is the dictator of Oceania. No one knows whether Big Brother is a real person, or simply the personification of the dictatorship. Big Brother spies on every citizen through "telescreens." Everyone is reminded constantly, "Big Brother is Watching You."
Let's compare that to the recent revelations about the Orwellian-named National Security Agency (NSA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Defense. News reports in the Guardian and the Washington Post have uncovered a secret court order dated April 23, 2013, issued to Verizon. Verizon is the largest cell phone company in America. The court order requires Verizon to give to the NSA "all call detail records or 'telephony metadata' created by Verizon for communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls." "Call detail records" are records of who you called, when you called, and how long you spoke.
The court order in the news reports is classified, and it's marked "Declassify on: April 12, 2038."
There is no reason to think that the NSA singled out Verizon. So that implies that the NSA is collecting records of every telephone call that you and I make, even local telephone calls. In fact, Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who worked at the NSA, told reporters that he could get the records for the calls from the president's own personal cell phone.
The NSA has not denied that it is collecting call records on every American. On the contrary, the NSA sees nothing wrong with it.
I see three fundamental problems with this:
- This is worse than the proverbial "fishing expedition"; this is like putting the entire ocean through a sieve. It makes a mockery of the Fourth Amendment's requirement that government searches be "particular."
- This assumes not only that everyone is guilty until proven innocent, but that everyone is guilty. The Fourth Amendment limits searches to cases of "probable cause," meaning that a prudent and cautious person would reasonably believe that the search will yield evidence of a crime. Obviously, most phone records have absolutely nothing to do with the commission of any crime.
- Providing this information to the Department of Defense violates the fundamental principle that our military does not operate on American soil, against American citizens. That principle has been embodied in law since the 1870s. From this perspective, providing this personal call record information to DoD is no different from providing it to the CIA -- another agency that is not allowed to operate on U.S. soil.
The news reports also reprinted five pages from an NSA PowerPoint presentation about the NSA's "Prism" program. According to that NSA presentation, the NSA collects information "directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple." "What information?" you may wonder. This information, according to the NSA presentation: "E-mail, Chat-video, voice, Videos, Photos, Stored data, VoIP [Voice over Internet Protocol], File transfers, Video Conferencing, Notifications of target activity -- logins, etc., Online Social Networking details [and] Special Requests."
The PowerPoint presentation in the news reports is classified, and it's marked "Declassify On: 20360901" (Meaning Sept. 1, 2036.)
The plain meaning of this, in the context of the presentation, is that the NSA is pulling unlimited amounts of emails from Microsoft's hosted Hotmail accounts, emails from Google's hosted Gmail accounts, search records from Google's search servers, private "friend" communications from Facebook's servers, the content of telephone calls from Skype's VoIP service, etc., etc.
Regarding the Prism program, despite what the presentation specifically states, the NSA contends that it cannot actually collect information directly from the servers of all those Internet service providers. The NSA also has put out that it collects such information (e-mails, photos, call content, etc.) only for foreigners not residing in the United States. Honestly, I don't know how the NSA could do that in any reliable manner, because Google, Microsoft, Facebook and all the others have no way of knowing your citizenship or your residence. But that's what the NSA is saying.
The bottom line is that the NSA evidently is getting call information on virtually every phone call by virtually every American, it is definitely getting the emails and call content of foreigners, and it may or may not be getting the emails and call content of Americans.
So is Uncle Sam actually Big Brother? I won't dwell on the convoluted intimate relations that would be necessary to make your uncle also your brother. Rather, as noted above, the essence of Big Brother was that "Big Brother is Watching You." Uncle Sam isn't physically observing you at all times -- that much is true. But if Uncle Sam is receiving information about every phone call that you make (as the NSA concedes), and Uncle Sam has access every other electronic communication of yours, including your emails and web browsing and storing it all (which the NSA disputes), then yes, Big Brother is Watching You.
I think that it's wrong, and it has to end. As do the 13,000 people in 24 hours who signed the petition supporting our legislation at www.MindYourOwnBusinessAct.com. Because we can't protect our freedom by destroying it.
I understand that there may be some people who see no problem in the Department of Defense monitoring their communications. I also understand that there are some people who have been so traumatized, so terrorized, by terrorism that they are willing to give up all of their freedom - all of everyone's freedom - for the promise of some safety.
I am not one of those people.
Rep. Alan Grayson
"Ain't the pictures enough, why do you go through so much,
To get the story you need, so you can bury me.
You've got the people confused. You tell the stories you choose.
You try to get me to lose the man I really am.
-Michael Jackson, "Privacy" (2001).
Follow Rep. Alan Grayson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/alangrayson