Thursday, May 11, 2006

If it is not illegal it should be

Today's revelation that the NSA has a obtained records of every phone call to or from every phone in America (except for those individuals fortunate enough to be served by Qwest) with no congressional or judicial oversight is appalling. My very simple take on this (and all the other warrentless surveillance of American citizens) is that if it is not illegal it should be (and it looks like it is). Call me crazy, but I think that the government should have to convince a judge that is has a reason for obtaining my phone records before they get to have them. Particularly given that it is unlikely that this will substantially change the threat of terrorism (as we discussed in class).

So real quick then, marginal benefit some tiny change in the likelihood of catching terrorists; marginal cost the cost of accumulating and analyzing the records and the loss of any expectation of privacy when using the phone for all American citizens (and any effects of this loss of the expectation of privacy). And don't underestimate the size of these costs. Right now you think, "I don't call anyone interesting", so who cares. Others, though, do care. People call all sorts of numbers which could, in the wrong hands, be used to embarrass them or get them in trouble (e.g., calls to psychiatrists, lawyers, reporters, ...). Further, it is easy to forget this because our country is relatively old and stable, but the time may still come when we need to be able to call each other in order to reclaim our individual sovereignty from an overzealous government.

Ultimately, if the government can convince a judge or someone that my phone records are important to providing public safety, fine I might be willing to pay this price. But I need to know that there are legitimate reasons for me to give up this expected privacy and that there are rules governing the use of these records and severe punishments for their miss use.

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