Time for Surveillance Limits After a Century of Proliferation

Over the past century, ’’function creep”, the gradual extension of a system beyond the purposes for which it was conceived and a mainstay of government behavior worldwide, has lead to the surveillance states we know today. Beginning with World War I’s reading of transatlantic telegrams, the practice of eavesdropping on communication has morphed into a monopoly for the NSA and its ilk. A recent article by The Intercept examines the phenomena, and exposes its dangers for the future.

The stakes are higher now, given the volume of traffic and the proliferation of the Internet in this  digital age. Interestingly, the problem of government oversight abuse was detailed as early as 1975 by US Senator Frank Church, himself a target of surveillance for his anti-Vietnam War stance,

In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air. … That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left. … There would be no place to hide.

So in what started as physically copying military and diplomatic telegrams and dispatches 100 years ago, the process has evolved to virtually snatching copy from the ether.

Back in 1929, then Secretary of State Henry Stimson, ended funding for the ominously (and perhaps presciently) called  Black Chamber (an NSA’s forerunner along with, later, FDR’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in WWII). Back then, Stimson, in defunding the program, simply observed that ’’ Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” Such pleasantries have been long since abandoned, replaced by the Pall-mall rush to ’’gather it all.” Exigent circumstances have upped the surveillance ante. Unfortunately, telecom companies and tech giants are all too complicit in the government’s surveillance game.

Today the FISA court operates under the auspices of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and was ironically born out of the eponymous Church Committee – an occurrence which in itself is a cautionary tale of how government policies and practices can monstrously get out of hand. And communication interception became a bedrock, a necessary evil, to detect and deter existential threats to the US. Since then, it has become increasingly difficult to shield everyday citizens from the massive information gathering apparatuses.

In the most extensive Vietnam era surveillance program, called MINARET, which lasted six years, there were only 600 domestic targets and 6,000 foreign targets.

“Contrast that with the billions of emails flowing across the networks to which AT&T has provided the NSA access. It is the quantity, not the type, source, or method of collection which produces visceral unease.

Today, in the aftermath of 9/11 and similar terror-related atrocities, the niceties uttered by Secretary Stimson no longer apply – times have inexorably (and unfortunately) changed. What is not acceptable, though, is the unfair and inefficient manner in which information is collected, and “function creep” be damned. If for no other reason than sheer economic factors, and the benefit of the free flow of goods and information prevails then, so be it. Privacy rights trump terrorism in the economic forum, which should be reason enough to limit surveillance proliferation – even if common sense and morality fail to muster support.

Stan Ward has enjoyed writing for 50 years. Writing has been a comfortable companion to a successful business and teaching career for him. Find him on Google+.

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