Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

June 19, 2013

Data mining breeches our founder’s concept of liberty and privacy

— Collecting data from phone calls of Verizon customers is one thing. Collecting email information on millions of Americans is something else. Both of these activities stir concern and break the bounds of constitutionality, but the invasion of privacy is far greater in the collection of email data.

Phone call data consists of phone numbers, dates and call duration, but not the conversation itself. Email data, on the other hand, not only has email addresses and date information, but the actual message as well, which often includes names and attached text and media files.

The potential for misbehavior is enormous, particularly with email data, given the nature of the information available to prying eyes. Some comfort may be taken from the idea that intelligence personnel who use this information are not susceptible to political influences unlike, say, Internal Revenue Service workers. That does not relieve the concern for our privacy, however.

Hardly anyone doesn’t want to the government to find plotting terrorists or discover terrorist plans before they are acted upon, even if it involves tapping phones, capturing emails or other covert measures. But the routine collection of massive amounts of data in the hopes of finding a couple of useful pieces of information is over-the-top and unjustified. Its use has increased since the practice was first introduced after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and has increased exponentially under the Obama administration, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The way it is supposed to work is that when the government has reason to believe that one or more individuals — like let’s say Irv Huffington or Ahmed Ali-Yahoo — may be planning an attack, it goes to court to seek an order allowing it to tap their phone or take whatever actions it proposes to do. It doesn’t simply start collecting the records of millions of people hoping to find the Huffington or Ali-Yahoo needle among millions of data bits in the haystack.

Here’s what the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

That language is precise and unambiguous. It does not allow judges to give anyone, or anyone to just take the information of millions of Americans in the hope of finding something hidden away among huge collections of data.

In order to get permission to breech a citizen’s privacy, the government must request permission by offering a compelling reason and support that assertion under oath, describing explicitly the place and persons under suspicion. Nowhere in the Fourth Amendment is the term “fishing expedition” mentioned or implied, nor is there language allowing nosing around in the private lives of millions of citizens who empower the government because it makes things easier, and it does not depend upon what the meaning of “is” is.

The founders viewed “general warrants,” or dragnet searches, such as we are witnessing today, as tyrannical. That view is not mitigated by the advent of terrorist acts that kill dozens, hundreds or thousands, nor by the amazing technological advances since the mid-18th century; general warrants still are tyrannical.

The United States has Constitution protections for a reason: because the framers understood from first-hand experience how government can slither into impropriety, tyranny and oppression unless it is clearly and firmly prevented by statute from doing so. The U.S. Constitution was created not to limit what the people may do, but to limit what the government may do.

We are told, and many of us believe, that in order to be safe in these perilous times, we must give up much of our liberty and privacy for security, but Benjamin Franklin expressed this idea about that: Those who willingly give up liberty for security will have neither, and deserve neither.

It is a point of shame for the citizens of the United States that so many Americans have no functional knowledge of the principles upon which our nation was created or of the meaning or power of the U.S. Constitution. That is a prime reason that so many on the political left are able to mis-think so many things with such great success.  

As a nation we have grown lazy and tone deaf as our government has grown to gargantuan proportions and ridiculous levels of expense, and burst through the top and sides of the constitutional box our much-smarter-than-we-are Founding Fathers built for it.

When they look out on the U.S. landscape and see that some things that aren’t working well, they think becoming more like left/liberal Europe is the answer, without even the suspicion that the reason things aren’t working is because they have been trying for decades to become more like Europe and less like the United States of America, which under the U.S. Constitution became the freest, most prosperous and most successful nation in human history, while liberal socialist and communist governmental models have always failed.

James H. “Smokey” Shott, a resident of Bluefield, Va., is a Daily Telegraph columnist.

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