Privacy SOS
Nearly a decade after 9/11, there has been no national discussion about whether we are on the right track in the war against terrorism. There has been little attempt to probe root causes and the proclaimed motives of terrorist plotters have been passed over largely in silence.

Meanwhile, evidence suggests that mass surveillance threatens democracy and freedom more than it does terrorists. What kind of nation will we become if we do not demand that secretive domestic surveillance operations are brought in line with long-standing principles of liberty instead of undermining them?

As in police states that have monitored the thoughts, associations and actions of individuals, there will be growing pressure to conform. Creativity, political activity and dissent will be stifled, as people become afraid to say or do anything controversial. Secrecy will further imperil democratic institutions. In the words of federal judge Damon Keith, “Democracy dies behind closed doors.”

However good the intentions of the homeland security industry, the potential for dangerous mission creep makes it unwise to take on trust a largely unaccountable system. Over the past few years, the NSA reportedly accessed the personal email of former president Bill Clinton, databases have been illegally searched to get dirt on celebrities and romantic rivals, the FBI has lied to obtain the records of journalists, and workers in an FBI satellite control room have used surveillance equipment to spy on teenage girls trying on prom gowns.

If we are to remain a democracy, the public must be brought in from the dark. Mechanisms of transparency, accountability and effective oversight must be established at the federal and state levels, so that people can have access to information about fusion centers and other elements of the domestic surveillance system, and have some way of redressing power abuses. Individuals should be able to learn what information the government maintains about them, and any exemptions should be narrowly tailored to protect individuals from harm or maintain appropriate secrecy about ongoing investigations.

There should be standards regarding data collection, validation, accuracy, retention and sharing that safeguard privacy. Robust laws should be passed protecting First Amendment rights, and prohibiting law enforcement agencies from collecting information about individuals’ political and religious views, associations or activities, unless that information directly relates to an investigation based on reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct. Profiling on racial, religious and ethnic grounds should be barred as counterproductive and unjust, and serious steps taken to build genuine communities of trust that will enhance public safety.

We as a people must decide what it is we want to “secure.” If we want America to be a “land of the free” we must refuse to be controlled by fear, and work together to achieve these reforms.

Democracy or police stateThe choice is ours to make.

Demo image courtesy Nicholas DeWolf, 1970/Police car image courtesy Mister Falcon

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.