Caricature of James Clapper

We’re only keeping you safe!

The myths surrounding the revelations by Ed Snowden about the unchecked surveillance state are like zombies that never die. After I posted the Day We Fight Back information on my Facebook timeline on Tuesday, a friend I’ll call “Susan” (not her real name) replied with the following comment:

I’m sorry but I believe it’s a small price to pay for our protection from evil.

The myths surrounding the NSA’s surveillance persist, despite some excellent attempts to counter them with facts. An article from The Guardian, republished on the ACLU website, tries to set things straight.

Within minutes after the Guardian published that first leak on the NSA’s activities, pro-surveillance forces starting making bold claims about how necessary broad spying is to our very security. And almost every justification for indiscriminate spying on Americans and people abroad has been methodically refuted ever since. It turns out that assertions made by the administration, members of Congress and security commentators were little more than myths.

Just a few of those myths:

NSA surveillance programs have thwarted terror attacks here at home.

Administration representatives insisted during hearings that spying, including vast collection of phone metadata, had stopped 54 terror incidents. When pressed for specific details, the administration said around 10 were based in the US. That number finally shrank to one San Diego cab driver who was convicted of sending $8,500 to a Somali terrorist group. So it turns out that there were no attacks in America that were derailed by domestic spying.

Top National Security Experts: Spying Program Doesn’t Make Us Safer, and Spying Leaks Don’t Harm America

We’ve stayed safe. Doesn’t that prove the government efforts have worked?

This is like believing that government spying has prevented alien invasions or stopped boogeymen from hiding under our beds. The 9/11 attacks argument is a straw-man justification for whatever the NSA wants to do, just another way of scaring us into accepting anything in the name of Keeping Us Safe™. NSA spying would not have stopped 9/11, because the government already had information it needed, and didn’t effectively share or act on it.

NSA’s programs only work if they collect all information on everyone.

In their investigation the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board found no cases supporting the need for bulk collection, and concluded that bulk collection has not provided any information that the NSA could not have gotten using more targeted surveillance.

They’re only collecting metadata, not listening in on our calls.

The NSA reportedly traces three hops from a target: Alice knows Bob, Jeff, and Rebecca. But if Jeff becomes a target, Jeff’s three hops mean the NSA can check out Fran, Evan and Gloria. The Guardian calculated that if Alice has 50 friends, the number of targets generated under the NSA’s three-hops rule would be more than 1.3 million people. I really do hope that you (and everyone you know, and the 1.3 million people they know) don’t mind too much. Are you OK with the government knowing whom you call and when, from where to where, and how long your call lasts, and for the government then to know who those people called and when and for how long?

There’s no less-intrusive way to achieve the same goals.

In reality, if the NSA’s goal is to collect phone and other records to advance investigations, it has many tools at its disposal that are more specific and targeted, including the ability to obtain emergency authorization to seize records and follow due process later, if there are actual threats to lives.

I have nothing to hide. Why should I care?

Hey, if you’ve got nothing to hide, why not post your social security number and credit card information online, leave your curtains open at night and your doors unlocked, and see how carefree and happy your life becomes? The Fourth Amendment guarantees a right to privacy. The Constitution doesn’t ask if you want or need that right; the Fourth Amendment grants it to everyone, and requires that the government only interfere with that right under very specific conditions.

One of the best arguments against “I have nothing to hide” was a comment responding to a diary titled Nothing to Hide, right here on MyFDL a few months ago:

Crane-Station said,

Give me your health information, including any illnesses you are being treated for, your income statements for the past several years, including bank accounts, throw in a few credit card numbers and while you are at it, hand over your voting information, include any legal run-ins you have had, and so on.

Let’s keep whacking at these zombie statements in the hope of thoroughly killing them once and for all. We aren’t safer, the vast surveillance state must be brought under control and balanced with our privacy rights, and we all have things we’d prefer to keep private. My Facebook friend never returned to the post to comment again, so I suppose I’ll never know if I disturbed her “protect us from evil” bubble. I hope so.

Caricature of James Clapper by DonkeyHotey from a photo in the public domain by Pete Souza available from The White House Flickr photostream.