Yes, America, You Are Being Watched

The surveillance state is alive and well in the U.S.A.


During a visit to Richmond, Virginia on Monday, his third day as FBI director, Jim Comey welcomed the current debate over the reach of government surveillance. "The pendulum swings back and forth" between liberty and security, he said. America benefits when those with differing views on the issue "bang it out." Comey, whose modesty is proportional to his height (six foot eight), did not remind those present of his own role in pushing the pendulum back toward the civil-liberties end of its arc during a now-famous showdown at the hospital bedside of former Attorney General John Ashcroft.

But Comey added that he didn't always find the liberty-versus-security dichotomy helpful. Sometimes security and liberty move in tandem, he said. He offered the illustration of a police officer on a playground whose presence makes everyone in the vicinity feel both more secure and more free.

It's a fair point. Yet if that were all there were to the matter then the current debate would seem wildly overblown. Is it? Clearly not: Many serious, intelligent people find the recent revelations about domestic spying highly unsettling. Why is that?

Go back to Comey's playground illustration. His point about liberty and security moving in tandem holds true – but it can cut both ways.

Suppose the police officer is not simply standing on the playground, warding off potential malefactors. Suppose he is also watching you: following you around, making notes, videotaping you, whispering into his microphone. Would you feel more secure then, or less?

Suppose the officer also tails you home. Suppose he follows you into your house and begins poking around in your closets, reading your mail, copying the contents of your computer's hard drive, and taking notes about your dinner-table conversation with your spouse. Would you feel more at liberty, or less?

Just about anyone would find this highly unsettling. He or she would feel both insecure and inhibited: simultaneously less secure and less free. And that is how many people feel about the alarming expansion of government surveillance. It is, indeed, something the Founders understood when they wrote the Fourth Amendment, guaranteeing the "right" – the liberty right – of the people to be "secure" from unreasonable searches by government authorities. The Fourth Amendment treats security as a component of liberty, not its opposite.

Among other things, the Founders were concerned about "general warrants" – which allowed officials to search a person's home and papers at whim. The Founders insisted that warrants be issued only for "cause," and that they must describe "the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." But the NSA's vacuuming up of millions of Americans' telephone records cannot be justified by any particular cause. Rather than develop a suspicion and follow it up with a particularized search, the NSA's metadata program conducts a general search first, and then examines the results for reasons to suspect someone in particular.

And the NSA's metadata program is just one among a rapidly proliferating population of surveillance programs. Through another program, the agency also has access to roughly 75 percent of Internet traffic. For the past six years, the FBI has been building a $1 billion database of physical characteristics, from iris scans to palm prints. The Labor Department maintains a nationwide registry of new hires; states use it to track down deadbeat parents. The Department of Homeland Security has compiled data on credit card transactions, rental car information, and email contacts. Border agents are empowered to search, without a warrant or even suspicion, everything from laptop computer files to "pocket litter." (The federal government defines the "border" for this purpose as 100 miles wide; that covers 197 million U.S. citizens.)

Across the country, police departments are amassing records of Americans' ordinary movements through the use of automated license-plate readers. Twenty-seven states are using facial-recognition technology to match surveillance footage with DMV mug shots. Just recently, a federal court ruled police departments did not need a warrant to obtain your cellphone records.

These are just a few of the ways government is keeping tabs on Americans, and there are more coming down the pike – from the insurance-reporting requirements of Obamacare to the proposal that all Americans carry biometric ID cards to improve immigration enforcement.

Supporters of all this government surveillance sometimes say that "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear." The fallacy inherent in that statement entails its assuming people want privacy only to hide what is incriminating. But privacy is about much more than dirty little secrets. There is nothing incriminating about a prostate exam or gynecology checkup, for instance – but few people would want to have one on live TV. Some things are simply nobody else's business.

Increasingly, however, government acts as though nearly everything is its business – from your phone calls to your driving habits. And that's what has people so concerned. Americans don't mind the cop on the playground. It's the one camping out in their living room that worries them.

This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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    1. What about Judas Priest’s Electric Eye

  1. “The pendulum swings back and forth” between liberty and security, he said.

    There is no pendulum. There is only a ratchet, and it only goes one way.

    1. The relaxation factor is supplied when the head is twisted clean off the bolt.

        1. And here I thought you were going to reference the Frankie Goes to Hollywood song ‘Relax’.

          1. Don’t do it.

    1. Fucking noob. You don’t understand. If you were smart and went to an Ivy League school where their logic is better, you’d understand that if you apply legal reasoning using secret interpretations, our masters (to whom you should obsequiously submit) can reach any end they so choose.

  2. Maybe we should start spying on the NSA. Homemade drones, people following NSA employees around and staring at them, etc.

    1. Homemade drones

      Good luck getting FAA approval.

      1. Just keep them in sight and below 400 feet. If that doesn’t work, then ground-based drones.

    2. I’m pretty sure some will think it’s akin to shooting cops but I like that. Hammurabic law, no exceptions for government.

  3. You are being watched

    And then prosecuted.

    And you get to foot the bill.

    USA! USA! USA!

  4. The pendulum swings back and forth” between liberty and security, he said.

    No, it doesn’t.

    There are the powers given to the government in the Constitution. Exceeding those powers is not a pendulum swing, it is a violation of the supreme law of the land. And judicial activists, inventing “doctrine” (“expectation to privacy” and “third party doctrine” come immediately to mind) in order to support a political party’s unconstitutional desires are traitorous bastards and should be impeached for their actions.

    The problem is…Americans don’t give a shit about their liberty.

    1. To the extent that there is any swing, the problem is that the center of the swing keeps moving towards more unlimited state power.

      1. “The course of history shows that as a government grows, liberty decreases.”

        /some old slave owner

  5. Supporters of all this government surveillance sometimes say that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

    I would go so far as to say this is true…

    …IF, and I repeat, IF, the government was beyond corruption. How’s that working out?

    1. Also, the problem with this is that the more the government knows about you, the more likely you’re going to be found to be doing something “wrong”. It’s amazing the sort of complicated conspiracy I can spin when I have unrestricted access to a decade’s worth of phone calls, emails, correspondence, and other communications. OH MY GOD, YOU PURCHASED POT A FEW TIMES??? YOU MUST BE PART OF A MEXICAN MAFIA CONSPIRACY!!!!1!!one!!1!

      1. Better still: You ARE part of a conspiracy! Which one? We can’t tell you. How do we know? Also cannot disclose that. Enjoy life in prison with no trial! Waterboarding day is Wednesday!

        1. oh we also took your house car and cash….your wife is now a street whore and your kids are somewhere in Thailand being some creepers new toys. Enjoy!

          We do have meatloaf monday! you also get 30 mins of Sun light every other day!

    2. Orwell nailed it: “The only thing you can truly call your own is the few cubic centimeters inside your own skull.”

      So far.

      1. they are working on it. Give it 50-100 years and they will own our thoughts and probably implant some control processor to turn us into drones….damn Continuum!

  6. Glenn Greenwald just broke that the NSA has shared raw daata directly with Israeli intelligence in a deal signed some time in 2009.

    And yet somehow Snowden is the one committing treason.

    1. Americans should not worry about this at all.

      The 1st paragraph of Greenwald’s source document is quite explicit that it is all consistent with the 4th Amendment.

      Of course, with a living Constitution, the 4th Amendment means precisely what the NSA says it means subject only to secret opinions by the FISA court.

    2. Oh come on… Israel is a true ally.

      It’s not like she has maliciously bombed American ships or killed unarmed American citizens protesting its actions…

      What can they POSSIBLY do with this information that’ll get us in trouble?

  7. As much as all this electronic surveillance bothers me, being coerced to maintain financial records for arbitrary warrantless inspection by government agents and to file an annual statement of income and various expenses with the IRS is worse.

    It’s not just a police state; it’s an expensive and time-wasting police state.

    1. Is that you, Stossel?

    2. i think it could be better made but i personally favor an income tax over property tax. I loath property tax so much. The fact you are getting taxed on something you already own and have paid taxes on for decades drives me nuts. I aspire to one day own large amounts of land and put a fence around it and live in peace but with some property taxes being ridiculous it makes it nearly impossible to retire and live without having to work to just pay the tax man to maintain what you own….so fucking dumb!!! Paying a tax for making something is far better than paying a tax to own something.

      1. And both systems are worse than a sales tax. But yeah, the idea that you could lose property that you already own because you have to pay taxes on it again is bullshit. It is, in fact, a leftover from the feudal system that used property tax as a way of keeping peasants under the control of the local lord.

        1. I am also in favor of income tax because i am not stupid and do realize that wealth can get out of control….for an example there are many times that the market was far too out of control and it wasn’t fixed until a multipronged approach to fix it. The industrial age was horrible. It required a few people who at the time revolutionized management to get rid of soldiering plus you had worker revolts, and you had people lobby the government to at least put in a little control. I am a large fan of the ideals of libertarianism or whatever but it is not perfect. You need a little bit of government regulations, with some people fighting for rights, and with some good ole competition. Don’t get me wrong I am not saying fast food workers need 15 an hour lol but 3 dollars an hour is a no go and the market could easily push $4 an hour for a fast food worker due to demand*. Hence why in some aspects you have to have government regulations….i hate the government but think of the big picture. You have people, companies, and government policing each other….we currently don’t have that but I hope you can get my point on why I hate sales tax because it is horrible disproportionate and would murder the economy. A flat tax is a stupid idea on multiple levels. Give me a plain progressive income tax and I would be happy. Just one that doesn’t favor others and punish others. I have gotten good at it. I personally have moved my life style around income tax so i pay as little as possible ^^

          1. *Just because the market has enough people or has enough influence to force people to work for $4 an hour doesn’t mean it would benefit the entire society. The market can be controlled by horrible people just as much as the government can be as well. How much price fixing have we had? I find it interesting how many people tend to miss that the 3 man groups are these.

            Market (businesses, companies, and corporations)

            All three groups can be horrible evil and cause horrible harm. Partly why I think anarchy and a complete free market are just as utopian as a socialist utopia.

            1. i know i am a crazy socialist but i am a fan of the **IDEA** note i can’t stress it enough ***IDEA*** of the FDA, USDA, and EPA. There are others but those are the man 3 i normally reference. The market (companies and people) can not be trusted to keep people safe. The point of a business is to make money at all costs….i know there is a shift in recent years but that is a very strong cultural shift that has been unheard of. Look at history and today. Do you want to trust people that run a company to make as much money as possible to not cut corners that gets people killed or worse injures them in a way that makes like miserable? That is why i like government oversight but at the same time it is a never ending balance of power and efficiency. I know you can get people like Consumer reports to do it but that can only go so far. So anyways i am really tired and noticing it is hard to convey this off my head concisely so the point i you NEED something like the USDA, FDA, and EPA to MIDIGATE these issues but you DONT need them in TODAYS form.

              Anyways, feel free start ripping me a new one ^^

  8. (The federal government defines the “border” for this purpose as 100 miles wide; that covers 197 million U.S. citizens.)

    I think you can thanks SCOTUS with that wonderful bit of “Legal Reasoning.”

    1. Obviously, SCOTUS grew up with those huge, thick retarded kids crayons with which to paint their masterpieces.

      1. hate crayons! color pencils rule!

    2. Was once pulled over 60 miles north of the border by a Border Patrol agent because as he went the other way, he saw my brake lights flash.

  9. Not to mention anyone that even vaguely follows politics understands that laws, regulations, etc. are not exactly uniformly applied. These “tools” are for the benefit of the political class and their minions, not the citizenry.

  10. It’s the one camping out in their living room that worries them.

    Nah. Most people could give a fat rats ass. If it doesn’t interefere with watching the game this sunday, fuck with their Iphone reception, or impede their trip to the mall, most people just don’t give a shit.

  11. This was in my Facebook feed:

    Haha! Statism is like super adorbs when you illustrate it with popular movie references!!!11

  12. Sometimes security and liberty move in tandem, he said. He offered the illustration of a police officer on a playground whose presence makes everyone in the vicinity feel both more secure and more free.

    So I take it in this analogy, the NSA’s the policeman, the country’s the playground, and we’re all children… Well I guess I should commend him for being honest about how he views the people, even if it is by accident.

  13. Police don’t make me feel safer, and I’ve had absolutely minimal contact with them. I don’t like it being around people with that kind of authority to mess with my life with the full backing of the government.

    1. be glade you didn’t work in the DOD with double jeopardy and complete commie control over your life for 4-5 years. That place breeds nothing but the shittiest people in the world

  14. America prospered because people were appreciated for thinking out of the box.
    Time to say good by to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_dream

  15. The fallacy inherent in that statement entails its assuming people want privacy only to hide what is incriminating.

    Just wanted to point out that while I honestly have little that I’d care to hide, if I support the government’s ability to spy on its own citizens without limitation just because my inbox is mostly chain emails and cat pictures, that policy doesn’t just apply to me. It applies to activists, journalists, whistleblowers and enemies of politicians, the military, the surveillance state and the police. In the long run, we’d all be far worse off for that, and in the meantime I see no evidence that the US’s open war on its own citizens’ privacy has helped anyone ever.

    1. Well you are not looking hard enough. It is has helped the bottom line of defense contractors, the politicians whose campaigns they contribute to, and the careers of prosecutors.

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