A rigorous debate is underway in Washington over how wiretapping laws may be applied to social media or other web-based platforms, and the issue takes the nation to an historic crossroads of policy choices, pitting national security interests against protection of individual privacy. The course the nation ultimately chooses to take carries ominous implications.
Internet platforms have become a primary mode of person-to-person contact, and government says it needs more access to the broad swath of electronic communication by email, text message and postings on social media.
But civil libertarians warn that how such access might be granted will have long-range repercussions in the arenas of free speech and individual privacy. It is shaping up as an epochal confrontation between opposing interests, and one that must be approached slowly, thoughtfully and with eyes wide open.
The Obama Administration is backing a three-year effort by the FBI to overhaul surveillance laws and require companies like Facebook and Google to make it easier for government agencies to monitor suspicious communication. The tech industry has resisted the move, principally on grounds that it will disrupt commerce and suppress innovation.
Commercial interests aside, individual citizens have a huge stake in the debate, which at its core is over the sacrifice of privacy for the sake of security. The question is not whether the government, through court authorization, has the right to monitor suspicious communication — it is whether such monitoring should be made technically easier.
It is difficult to argue that it should ever be easy for government to oversee the activities of its citizens. Protections should be in place, and they should be strictly adhered to regardless of what shortcuts new technology may avail. There is already too little transparency in the government's burgeoning and shadowy conglomerate able to conduct massive surveillance on a daily basis.
The 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative report by the Washington Post, called "Top Secret America," documented the existence of 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies working in the area of counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence gathering. In Utah, the National Security Agency is completing construction of a super-secret data center in Bluffdale that will reportedly have the wherewithal to intercept and monitor the entire daily tsunami of worldwide electronic communications.
Clearly, these are dangerous times, filled with many threats to safety and security. And certainly, the government must be disposed to intercede and interrupt such threats. But there must be boundaries to that authority. The authors of constitutional guarantees of free speech and protection from unwarranted search and seizure never could have foreseen the ways those rights might intersect with the mechanisms of advanced technology, alongside the threat of international terrorism. They did, however, understand threats to national security, and they were all too familiar with the claims of kings and other leaders that rights should be compromised in the name of that security.
While the nation considers any efforts to further facilitate monitoring of private communication, Americans should also look for ways to ensure the government is fully accountable to the Bill of Rights, and not placed in a position to throw a blanket of surveillance capability over every corner of social interaction.