Editorial: NSA scandals parallel Orwellian concerns

Editorial Board

“Big Brother is watching you.” – the chilling tagline of George Orwell’s prophetic novel 1984. We are decades past the ’80s but Orwell’s ominous warnings linger.

Conditions certainly aren’t comparable to the society described by Orwell in his cynical novel (“War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength”), but there’s a reason that sales of the book have increased in the last week.

On June 5, Edward Snowden let loose one of the most important leaks of the century: the National Security Agency has been collecting and storing phone records and other data. Snowden is called a whistleblower, a hero, or a traitor depending on to whom you speak. This discovery was accompanied by nationwide outrage. The idea of government data collection is too similar to 1984’s vision of complete totalitarian control for comfort. Though the majority of U.S. citizens are angered by the news, uncertainty as to the legality and morality of the NSA’s actions exists.

So, is the public indignation justified?

The NSA’s data mining is authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Under this legislation, data is protected by a necessity of there being tangible reason to investigate. However, the courts of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) have controversially decided that this applies not to the collection of data but instead to how the data is used.

Basically, under this interpretation of the law, all data can be legally collected. The catch is that it cannot actually be looked at without reasonable suspicion (of terrorism, foreign threat, etc.). This enormous “blanket surveillance” is thus done in the name of protecting the country from terrorism.

This immediately brings to mind the quote usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

There isn’t a citizen among us who doesn’t revile terrorism and wish to keep it out of our borders. But what are we willing to give up in order to guarantee our security?

As mentioned, the actions of the NSA are protected by a particular interpretation of the Patriot Act. It is that interpretation, and not the act itself, which is immoral and unconstitutional.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, the author of the Patriot Act, feels that the FISA court’s interpretation of the Act has gone too far. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Sensenbrenner wrote, “I am extremely disturbed by what appears to be an overbroad interpretation of the Act.”

If the original author himself feels that the intent of the Act has been warped, then the current interpretation is clearly out of line. Sensenbrenner’s worries are twofold: that the interpretation is unconstitutional and that the injustices performed by the NSA will inhibit future important legislation crucial to intelligence agencies.

Nearly everyone feels that the NSA’s data mining is immoral, but the real argument is that it is completely unconstitutional. Sensenbrenner feels that the FISA court’s decision is inconsistent with the allowances outlined in the Patriot Act and U.S. Constitution. He asks, “How could the phone records of so many innocent Americans be relevant to an authorized investigation as required by the Act?”

We ask only the same question.