NSA Spying Threatens Law-Abiding Americans

I was talking with an older German citizen about the NSA’s data collection program that has recently been the subject of much debate.  He worked for the East German government during the Cold War and viewed the NSA’s activities as similar to the Stasi’s under communist rule, but potentially more threatening.

The argument often given for the NSA’s activities is to stop terrorist activities before they occur.  Rather than waiting for someone to break the law, our government hopes to stop them before they act.  President Obama has told us that many potential terrorist attacks have been thwarted thanks to the NSA’s analysis of their huge database containing all our phone calls, emails, internet searches, and so forth.

The Stasi—the East German secret police—undertook significant data collection themselves, but in the pre-computer era were necessarily less effective and less comprehensive than the NSA.  My German acquaintance told me that in East Germany they viewed a good Stasi agent as someone who could identify traitors before even the traitors themselves realized they would act against the government.  Traitors had certain characteristics in common, and by analyzing individuals, the Stasi was able to spot individuals with those characteristics that could indicate they would act against the state.

The NSA does the same thing, but with much more data.  I have heard people say that if you don’t have anything to hide, you shouldn’t be concerned about all the information the government is collecting about you.  But that’s not necessarily true when the government is collecting information in an attempt to identify potential law breakers before they actually break the law.  Your innocent activities might have some of the characteristics that place you with others who the government views as threats.  Then it comes to view you as a threat, even though you are completely innocent of any wrongdoing.

Is this excessive paranoia?  I don’t think so.  Unless you believe the government can identify future terrorists without error, innocent people are sure to find themselves under suspicion.  Government must cast a wide net to identify future terrorists.  You may recall former Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy found himself on a terrorist watch list because of information about someone with a similar name.  Do you think this could happen to a U.S. Senator but not to you?

Once under suspicion, you could have trouble boarding aircraft, like Senator Kennedy, you could have trouble getting credit, and as someone under surveillance you could expect to be followed, harassed for minor traffic infractions, have your income taxes audited, and more.  You become a suspect.

So, the NSA surveillance program gives people reason to be careful not to engage in activities that might rouse suspicion, even if they are completely innocent.  The problem is, what activities the NSA views as suspicious are secret, so people can’t really avoid them.  Are your internet searches completely benign?  Are you making sure not to put NSA keywords in your emails?  Are you emailing or phoning suspicious people?  Maybe you should use those programs that anonymize searches and emails.  But, I’d guess those would be one of the first indicators the NSA would look at to ferret out potential terrorists.

Over time, expect the definition of a terrorist to grow to eventually encompass anyone who would work against the government, much as the definition of organized crime has grown well beyond the Mafia the definition originally targeted.  Already, the IRS has targeted groups that used terms like constitution and patriot in their names.  If you want to protect your constitutional rights, or are a patriot, we already know those are suspicious and potentially anti-government activities.  Domestic spying, like the NSA is doing and the Stasi did before, is a threat to all citizens, and is designed to be.  Those in power want citizens to avoid any activity that might be viewed as challenging that power, because it encourages others to join them.

Meanwhile, government’s massive data analysis, used for profiling to ferret out suspicious individuals before they act, is sure to include some innocents.  The people they want to identify are not just those who have committed illegal acts, but also those who might be threats in the future.   Even if they have nothing to hide, some law-abiding citizens will be viewed as suspects and find their rights threatened.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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