Last Wednesday, I put on my most professional t-shirt and decided to infiltrate the law school, not to sneak into the library – which happens to be the best study spot ever – but to watch three intelligent people argue. While some symposiums hosted by the law school are about as interesting as a CSPAN marathon, the topic of debate was “NSA: Guardian or Big Brother.” The discussion focused on the collection of metadata, which is basically the numbers, time, and duration of all phone calls.
Now personally, I don’t care that the government has the records of who I call, when I call them, and for how long we talk. Honestly, I always operated under the assumption that if I called Afghanistan twelve times a day and looked up a wikihow page on ‘how to build a bomb’, there would probably be some blacked-out Suburbans waiting for me outside my house and few people knocking on – or down – my door. Does that make the NSA surveillance okay?
Probably not. Is it necessary? That’s the question I was hoping the debate would answer.
The moderator of the debate introduced the three panelists: Steven Bradbury, a lawyer who served as the head of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice during the Bush administration; Liza Gostein, yet another lawyer who works for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU; and Shane Harris, senior writer at Foreign Policy magazine and critically acclaimed author. Steven Bradbury, unsurprisingly, seemed to think the surveillance was not only necessary but constitutionally permitted. No content, he argued, equals no breach of privacy or first amendment violation. According to Bradbury, the minute you sign a contract with Verizon or AT&T, you no longer have a reasonable expectation that your phone call logs will remain private. The call logs are stored in the NSA database but not analyzed or otherwise reviewed unless the FISA courts grant them access to the data. The FBI needs the NSA metadata in order to identify new suspects and find new collective links, not to randomly listen in on phone calls or read text messages, Bradbury assured the crowd.
Then it was Liza Gotein’s chance to respond, by pointing out that the NSA has a terrible record of determining “foreignness or reasonable suspicion” and call logs can be extremely revealing. For instance, phone calls to an abortion clinic or a divorce lawyer undoubtedly expose personal information. Gotein argued that the purpose of bulk collection of data is to find associations, and the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of association protects constituents from such invasion of privacy. Since the NSA does not need to establish the relevance of the information until after collection, it is hard to determine the effectiveness of metadata compilation. Gotein reasoned that there exists a huge potential for abuse within the NSA system, and there is no logical endpoint to data collection and privacy infringements.
Ultimately, journalist Shane Harris split the middle by acknowledging the potential for abuse does exist, but there haven’t been any really obvious examples of success or failure on either side since most instances are classified. Harris did claim, however, that the collection of call logs is a vital tool for national security. Since many terrorists speak in unidentifiable code that makes the content of their messages indecipherable, only the call logs and metadata can reveal connections important to the prevention of terrorist attacks. Shane Harris blamed the government for not adequately defending the NSA programs and failing to persuade the American people that the surveillance programs are in the national best interest.
After the discussion, I found myself agreeing with Steven Bradbury. Sure, it’s incredibly creepy and a little bit Big Brother-eqsue, but we live in a dangerous world. Nearly thirteen years after 9/11, we seem to have forgotten why we relinquished some of our privacy to begin with during the Bush Administration: we were scared shitless. We have to remember that those ‘bad guys’ were scared of then still exist now; surveillance agencies like the NSA serve only to protect us.
I know some will don their tinfoil hats while quoting Orwell and waving their copy of Atlas Shrugged frantically, but trust the government when they say they aren’t sitting in their offices listening to the twenty voicemails your mom left you or intercepting the Snapchats of your breakfast. All bureaucratic oversight didn’t magically disappear – there is even a court created for the sole purpose of babysitting the FBI. The system may not stop bombs from detonating at the last second or prevent terrorist attacks on a daily basis, but it allows the government to monitor terrorist activity and identify extremist networks. The metadata mays seem like a lot of unnecessary information, but we need the entire haystack to find the needle.
I mean, if you aren’t doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?