Motives Aside, the NSA Should Not Spy on Us

We may have more to fear from spies acting out of patriotic zeal than those acting out of power lust or economic interest.

You need not suspect the motives of those responsible for NSA surveillance to detest what they are doing. In fact, we may have more to fear from spies acting out of patriotic zeal than those acting out of power lust or economic interest: Zealots are more likely to eschew restraints that might compromise their righteous cause.

For the sake of argument, we may assume that from President Obama on down, government officials sincerely believe that gathering Americans’ telephone and Internet data is vital to the people’s security. Does that make government spying okay?

No, it doesn’t.

“Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force. Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.” Although often attributed to George Washington, that famous quotation was probably was not uttered by him. Nevertheless, its value lies in what it says, not in who said it.

At best, government represents a risk to the people it rules. Even under a tightly written constitution and popular vigilance — both of which are easier to imagine than to achieve — government officials will always have the incentive and opportunity to push the limits and loosen the constraints.

But if their purpose is to protect us, why worry?

It doesn’t take much imagination to answer to this question. A purported cure can be worse than the disease. Who would accept the placement of a surveillance camera in every home as a way of preventing crime? By the same token, gathering data on everyone without probable cause in order to locate possible terrorists should be abhorrent to people who prize their freedom and privacy.

Since we’re assuming pure motives, we’ll ignore the specter of deliberate abuse. In our hypothetical case, no one would use the information in a way not intended to promote the general welfare. Pure motives, however, do not rule out error. So the danger remains that innocent people could have their lives seriously disrupted — or worse — by a zealous agent of government who sees an ominous pattern in someone’s data where none in fact exists. Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out that human beings are more likely to see order in randomness than vice versa. As a result, a blameless individual could have his life turned upside down by a bureaucrat who goes the extra mile to ensure that no terrorist act occurs on his watch. Think of the turmoil created for those falsely accused of the bombing at the Atlanta Olympic games and of sending anthrax letters after the 9/11 attacks.

The odds of such an error for any particular individual may be slight, but they are big enough if you put yourself into the picture.

However, that is not the only reason to reject even a well-intentioned surveillance state.

Julian Sanchez, who specializes in technology and civil liberties, points out that a person who has nothing to hide from government officials — if such a person actually exists — would still not have a good reason to tolerate NSA surveillance, because the general awareness that government routinely spies on us has an insidious effect on society:

Even when it isn’t abused … the very presence of that spy machine affects us and poisons us.… It’s slow and subtle, but surveillance societies inexorably train us for helplessness, anxiety and compliance. Maybe they’ll never look at your call logs, read your emails or listen in on your intimate conversations. You’ll just live with the knowledge that they always could — and if you ever had anything worth hiding, there would be nowhere left to hide it.

Is that the kind of society we want, one in which we assume a government official is looking over our shoulders?

Because government is force — “a dangerous servant and a fearful master” — it must be watched closely, even — especially — when it does something you like. But eternal vigilance is hard to achieve. People outside the system are busy with their lives, and politicians generally can’t be expected to play watchdog to other politicians. Therefore, at the least, we need institutional constraints and transparency: No secret warrants. No secret courts. No secret expansive interpretations of laws and constitutional prohibitions.

This article originally appeared in the Future of Freedom Foundation. 

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  • John Galt||

    If Americans could be even a little wise they'd come to regret tossing the Constitution into the dust bin. But that'll never happen. Too much diversity. And too much diversity is easily converted by the exploitative power pigs to insurmountable division.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Too much diversity. And too much diversity is easily converted by the exploitative power pigs to insurmountable division.

    Yes, because the history of Japan has been millennia upon millennia of domestic peace.

  • John||

    That was a bit of an odd post. Somehow letting the Germans and Italians in didn't destroy the Constitution. And as much as I would like to blame the Mexicans for our current plight, it looks to me like native born Americans are the ones doing the damage, unless mowing people's lawns is somehow destroying the Constitution.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Let's not ignore the fact that the Founders weren't a clone army. Yes, they were all men and they all had European heritage...and the similarities end there. You had devout Protestants, but you also had Catholics, Deists, and Freethinkers. You had city folk and country folk; you had soldiers and merchants and farmers and schoolteachers and ministers and scientists and doctors. Some were extremely wealthy, others were of modest means. Some owned slaves, others were already abolitionists. Many were English, but some were Scots-Irish or Scottish. If you expand the list to those who didn't attend the Convention, you had Italians, like Philip Mazzei; French, like Count de Rochambeau; Polish, like Pulaski and Kosciuszko; Swiss, like Gallatin, and Prussian like Baron von Stuben.

  • John||

    Yeah, Charleston and Boston were very different places in 1776. It was always a diverse country.

  • Jon Lester||

    KhimkiForest dot com. You will care.

  • John Galt||

    Yeah, I know it was an odd post. It's also odd to automatically assume it had anything to do with racism. I was actually referring to political partisanship, right vs left, etc.

    Hey, I'd love to expand on what I actually meant, however some friends showed up unannounced and it looks like I'll be logging off for the day.

    Diversity isn't a bad thing, exploiting to create division to keep us at each others throats to the point no one remembers the best thing we had going to protect our individuals liberties was the Constitution.

    Have a great day. Sorry for the mix-up.

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    "Somehow letting the Germans and Italians in didn't destroy the Constitution"

    Truly, our folly lay in allowing women to vote.

  • John||

    Regardless of what you think of Snowden, the fact is the Chinese and the Russians just told Obama to go fuck himself. How about that smart diplomacy? What a disaster of a President Obama is. No one in the world respects him or even fears him. No one cares what he thinks or worries about how their actions will affect American interests. The most ironic part is that Obama is pretty much everything liberals pretended George Bush was; a complete doofus who is held in bemused contempt by the world community.

    Obama can't even get the Chinese to arrest an American citizen wanted for espionage. Make no mistake. Snowden was not working for the Chinese and it is not like the Chinese give a fuck if some American gets prosecuted. They have little to gain by keeping Snowden. They are only doing it because they hold Obama in such low regard that they don't see any downside to doing it. The Chinese just walked over and metaphorically peed down Obama's leg and told him it was raining. What a joke he is.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Well, John, it's obvious the Chinese are one billion racists for defying Obama's will.

  • DenverJay||

    I know what you meant, but in fact, China has a very racist culture; in fact almost all of the far East peoples have very racist attitudes, both towards blacks, whites, and their Asian neighbors.

  • Almanian!||

    a complete doofus who is held in bemused contempt by the world community

    This is it exactly. In some ways, it's nice the US isn't Team America. But this isn't the way I'd hoped to get there - by being unserious and clumsy.

  • John||

    Regardless of what you think about this or that intervention, you want the US to be respected and feared.

  • Gordilocks||

    Nicely put, John.

  • John||

    http://www.nationalreview.com/.....na-johnson

    Here is another thought. Could it be that Obama asked the Chinese and Russians to take Snowden in to avoid a politically embarrassing trial? That might have been the smart thing to do and granted Obama is most certainly not smart. But Snowden coming back and having a long drawn out trial that gets him sympathy and support from the left and the right, would not have been good for Obama.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Why would he go through the trouble of that when most Americans wouldn't even blink if Snowden were sent to Gulag Gitmo?

  • John||

    nah. Americans would blink about that. It is one thing to send a bunch of Arabs to GUITMO. But sending a nice respectable white guy like Snowden? No way. They couldn't get away with it. The Courts wouldn't allow it. If the Chinese had turned him over and he were in an American jail, no federal court would let him be sent to GUITMO. And the public and Congress would have had a stroke. If Snowden ever comes back, he is getting a full on federal court trial.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Snowden may be White (as Snowden?) but he isn't seen as nice or respectable. I think you're underestimating how insane post-9/11 PATRIOT Act America has gotten.

  • John||

    They wouldn't do it. He is not a Muslim and he is not an Arab. So people would never tolerate him being given anything but a federal trial. You underestimate how gingoistic Patriot Act America is.

  • seguin||

    gringoistic?

  • Mark22||

    Come on, no time in the 20th century was any saner, and Europe isn't any saner either. We need to address these problems, but we've always had to address problems.

  • DenverJay||

    Maybe, but the Federal prosecutor would claim that all of their evidence is Top Secret, and so could not be reported to the American people, or hell, even shared with the defense. It would be a complete farce. That's if it ever got to trial: they take the death penalty off the table, and Snowden pleads guilty and gets a life sentence.

  • John||

    http://www.theblaze.com/storie.....aign=Share Buttons

    Looks like Bob Menendez has decided that underage hookers are a bit too risky and has moved on to married newsbabes.

  • John||

    http://www.someoneoncetoldme.com/gallery/25012008

    Don't throw away your dreams. Oh honey I never will. I never will.

  • ||

    If I poured honey on them they would not be any sweeter.

  • Rrabbit||

    So the danger remains that innocent people could have their lives seriously disrupted — or worse — by a zealous agent of government who sees an ominous pattern in someone’s data where none in fact exists.

    When the government collects lots of data about 320 million people, no matter what the criteria are for suspicious behavior, thousands of innocents will match such a pattern.

  • John||

    Yes. If it were 1947 and we didn't have a law governing everything, this would be bad but unlikely to actually affect many people's lives. But in today's world where laws are so out of control that pretty every adult in America has commits some kind of a federal felony nearly every day of their lives, this program is a monster. Any information the government has will eventually be used in ways it was never intended to be used. In the same what the Patriot Act was passed to fight terrorism but its provisions quickly used in ordinary criminal cases, this information will eventually be used to spy on Americans to catch criminal behavior. And in a world where everyone is a potential felon, that is a real problem.

  • Sevyy||

    Consider the contrast between Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and Mr. Snowden's "E-mail from a Hong Kong Hotel."

    MLK "couldn't get a fair trial" in Birmingham either, but he didn't flee to China.

    King wrote: "In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. "

    That single sentence defines the difference between a true moral hero and a juvenile narcissist.

  • John||

    So Snowden isn't MLK? Big deal. Snowden's character or lack thereof has nothing to do with the information he has given us. If we didn't know this was true, then Snowden's credibility would matter. But we know it is true. So Snowden no longer matters. What matters is what we plan to do about the information he has given us.

  • Gordilocks||

    THIS

    Snowden and MLK is a seriously bogus comparison.

  • ||

    The idiots and detestable people attacking Snowden and his character are making the weakest ad hominem possible.

    A leviathan government is spying on it's own people, stazi style, utilizing secret non-adversarial courts, bypassing due process, using secret interpretations of law ( same thing as having secret laws ) and imprisoning people indefinitely without charge or council. The very definition of tyranny.

    But Snowden is the bad guy for telling pointing that out.

  • ||

    I dont think MLK was facing a firing squad...at least not officially.

    If the feds get their hands on Snowden we wont have the pleasure of reading his "letters from a federal prison".

  • Sevo||

    "That single sentence defines the difference between a true moral hero and a juvenile narcissist."

    And this sentence defines how to miss the point.
    Whether Snowden meets someones standard of bravery is totally irrelevant to the fact that the guy delivered the goods on government malfeasance.
    He could be as hateful as that prick Holder, and it wouldn't matter.

  • Anders||

    "we may have more to fear from spies acting out of patriotic zeal than those acting out of power lust or economic interest: Zealots are more likely to eschew restraints that might compromise their righteous cause."

    Exhibit A: The Television Series "24". Your Hero Jack Bauer proudly used the Constitution as toilet paper and the Presidents thanked him each time.

  • ||

    What about when he was put on trial for torturing suspects and then handed over to China to be tortured himself for years by the definitely-not-George-W-Bush president?

    I always get the feeling the people who criticized 24 as a team red Rah Rah party never really watched it. It was basically The West Wing with Jason Bourne cut in.

  • Anvil||

    This is where the D/R duopoly comes in to play. Divide, Distract, Deceive, all in an effort to advance the big government agenda, while the people take sides on the issues and argue while the real injustice to society and freedom continue.

  • AdamJ||

    Word. I've tried to explain to people how similar these two parties are and the things that affect our country the most, economy and foreign policy, are almost exactly the same. The Fed runs the economy the exact same way and so do the war pigs. Sure there might be a few percentage point swing in taxes or a slight slowing/speeding of the regulatory leviathan, but by an large the things that matter most are pretty much the same.

  • Jon Lester||

    I got quite a few people started in Disqus today, and of course those, who didn't understand how or why I chose to use the phrase "fascist duopoly" proceeded to fault me for their own failings.

  • AdamJ||

    You know what else I've had an ass-full of lately that pisses me off to no end? People who say things like:
    "I don't understand why people love the constitution so much and think we need to adhere to a 230 year old document like it is scripture."

    Because it is the rule of law am without rule of law, we have no USA. Africa is not doing so hot without the rule of law. And guess what? The beauty of the constitution is that if it becomes outdated it tells you exactly how to change it! You don't like the second amendment? Petition your congressman and if enough people agree? Poof, no more second amendment. You don't like the 4th amendment? Go ahead and start a protest (better keep the 1st amendment going so you can still have your protest). Until then, STFU and for the good of your fellow citizens, support the rule of law. Thanks.

  • glycolic peel||

    It really doesn't give our government the right to spy on us just because they can but if their reason is for our own safety, then I guess it makes it alright. It's for our best. If you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to worry about. That's just my own opinion though.

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