08/06/2013 12:04 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2013

Surveil the 'Surveillors'

Today, when you go to any website, your Internet journey can be tracked in minute detail... how long, what files are downloaded, you name it. Everything you post on Facebook, tweet, email or text can be observed and followed by the US government, an employer, or a corporate entity from which you purchased items. Indeed, your exact physical location, through your GPS app in your smartphone, can be known at any moment. Your movements and driving habits and license plates are videotaped and stored, not just by organizations allegedly guarding our security but also by people who want to sell us more things and agencies that gather and sell data to anyone who will buy.

Manning and Snowden didn't do this, although the military, intelligence "community" and a plethora of Beltway consultants scattered in every jurisdiction in suburban Virginia and Maryland have broadened and intensified the kinds of scrutiny under which we now live. Manning and Snowden, plus investigative journalists, scholars and advocacy organizations have identified and warned about the rapidly vanishing space of privacy that citizens once assumed characterized life in a democracy. A hermit-like existence in remote Alaska - OK there may be that type of enforced privation and singularity still possible. But once one communicates electronically in any form, you are no longer alone or unknown.

Should we worry? Yes. And here civil libertarians join with political libertarians. Governmental and corporate control and intrusiveness concerning personal communication and data on an almost universal scale are perilous to every citizen. I want police to be able to apprehend criminals -- cameras identified the Boston Marathon bombers, for example. I want mass transit and air travel kept safe; screening, if done by TSA employees or police who are actually doing their job, is essential. Communication with, and travel to, some regions and countries should be scrutinized.

But with the collaboration of most leading corporations in global information and communication, an indigestible cornucopia of data now occupies so many petabytes that the NSA is quickly constructing a new huge facility in Utah to "house" and manage the glut. Some corporate giants such as Google may already be a step ahead. Reports in Forbes and elsewhere have detailed the scope and expense of this project.

To adjudicate and oversee the burgeoning growth of personal information hoarding by those who say they will protect us or sell us what we always have wanted, the United States public must rely on the Congress (particularly Senate and House intelligence committees), the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, in-house inspector generals (IGs) within intelligence agencies, the Presidential Intelligence Advisory Board and its Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB), some scholarly research, an occasional whistle-blower/leaker, and investigative journalism.

Of these, Members of Congress and Senators have been briefed but, post-Snowden, many claim to have not been told of the extent of PRISM. Further, no American needs to be reminded how little Capitol Hill is able to accomplish. The FISA Court -- which in the realm of secret surveillance has unlimited power -- has almost never refused, among tens of thousands of filings, governmental requests for information collection, and only the government is present in hearings before the judges. Presidential boards (most notably the IOB) were ignored by the Bush Administration, and even Obama has been slow to fill out its membership. IGs who challenge policy to air concerns about process or policy are rare as hen's teeth.

What we have, then, are investigative journalists and some advocacy groups trying to make links with inside sources and vice-versa (witness Snowden and the Guardian or Manning and WikiLeaks). Of course, such reporting never halts extreme examples of government/corporate connivance to invade privacy, but rather reveals excesses after the fact.

We do have proactive defenses among non-governmental organizations devoted to civil liberties and privacy. But sorely lacking are independent and expert means by which to monitor the "surveillors." Such a panel of citizen experts would be drawn from outside the "intel community" and Beltway establishment -- nominated from academe, non-governmental organizations, IT specialists from industry. The Citizens' Intelligence Panel (?) must have the permanent Congressionally mandated responsibility to access to highly classified material, conduct autonomous reviews of projects and sites including those of contractors and corporate collaborators, present testimony at FISA Court hearings, and offer its classified reviews to the President and Congressional intelligence oversight committees. Further operational details must wait, but the larger point is to ensure that non-DC establishment voices and minds become directly engaged.

The likelihood that whistleblowers would become leakers, a la Snowden, could be substantially impeded if such a visible and accessible non-intel community framework were established. If personnel with doubts about the wisdom of an information-gathering endeavor could see another non-journalistic avenue to air concerns -- still within the confines of their contracts but with individuals' confidentially ensured -- we may better be able to avoid illegal transfer of files and data for public distribution.

Global information surveillance, data-mining -- call it what you want. Thus far, we have failed to apply democratic brakes to slow the inexorable expansion of corporate/state amassing of every shred of our personal information. We have thus encouraged people, with motives that have nothing to do with payment from or service to a foreign power, to take damaging actions.

Daniel N. Nelson is an international consultant based in Virginia.