Our View: The philosophical — what’s too much?

Posted: August 17, 2013

Analyzing data culled from an audit and other top-secret documents provided by erstwhile NSA contract worker Edward Snowden, the Washington Post reported Thursday that the agency violated privacy rules and exceeded its legal authority “thousands of times” annually since 2008, the year Congress granted the intelligence community broad new powers to mine data in the fight against terrorism.

Transgressions ranged from inadvertent programming errors that led to the needless surveillance of innocent Americans to blatant violations of law and procedure, including unauthorized use of data and failure to inform the court overseeing the NSA of cases of unintended surveillance as well as changes in data collection methods. In one 12-month period spanning 2011 and 2012, the audit cited 2,776 such errors and violations.

Hence, the question: Is this much too much? Given the sheer volume of data it collects and analyzes, the NSA doesn’t believe it is. We cast a demonstrably cooler eye on this operation: The goal — national security — is, without a doubt, laudable, but at what cost? How much of our privacy, and of rights — whether unalienable or granted us by the Constitution — should we surrender to this massive surveillance state?

In this vein, the noted civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, with whom we infrequently find accordance, makes a salient point: Surveillance, increasingly employed, will eventually, and inexorably, alter the relationship of citizens with their government. No longer, says Mr. Hentoff, will we be “free citizens in a self-governing republic.” We, as citizens, will forever answer to a government, at once omnipotent and omnipresent, rather than the other way around.

National security, as we stated above, is vital. But if we allow technology to be our master rather than a needed servant in this critical cause, our national character will change. We’ll no longer be America. So vigilance, now more than ever, is essential — if we are to remain a free people.