The consistently principled Glenn Greenwald recently broke the story that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been secretly collecting phone records of millions of U.S. Verizon customers daily. Unsurprisingly, the usual Big Brother apologists chimed in with the rebuttal, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.”
Ah, yes. Civil libertarians are used to hearing the nothing-to-hide argument from people who are willing to trade privacy for security, or a false sense of it, anyway. When American citizens strongly opposed the Patriot Act that allows the government to wiretap phone lines without a warrant, we were told: “No secrets? No worries.” When we criticized the warrantless house-to-house raids in Boston following the Marathon bombing, we were told: “If you’re not housing the terrorists, what’s the big deal?”
Here’s the big deal: privacy isn’t simply the option to hide bad things. Privacy enables us to freely pursue the things that we enjoy, on our own terms. Maybe the Kardashian family enjoys putting their entire life out there for the world to see and harshly judge, but most of us like to keep some things to ourselves— and rightfully so!
Privacy is your right to control the flow of information about yourself. You choose what details to share, when, where, and with whom. There are likely parties from college that you do not want your employer to know about. You may not want your mother to know all the juicy details about your love life, or your friends to know the humiliating health questions you’ve searched on WebMD. When the government is snooping without your consent, they have taken away your right to a very important personal choice.
You may not be a terrorist, but there are certainly details in everyone’s personal lives that we want to keep private. Privacy should be important to all those who value freedom and the security of a comfortable voluntary lifestyle. It would be awkward for a best friend to read through a person’s emails and monitor phone calls, let alone some stranger from the government.
Some of us may use the Internet to learn about and discuss political ideology. Now, this is something that the government is more likely to take a serious interest in than your embarrassing late night texts to your ex-boyfriend.
With the IRS targeting libertarian and conservative minded groups, could the NSA also be keeping track of our political views? It remains to be seen, but should we trust government with the power to listen to our private conversations—some undoubtedly concerning politics— whenever they want?
The answer should always be: no. Some Democrats are willing to defend the NSA-Verizon scandal because Barack Obama is in the Oval Office, just as some Republicans were willing to downplay wiretapping under George W. Bush.
That’s just partisan political games.
But the protection of civilian privacy is an issue far more important than red versus blue. No one should give any president, any power that they wouldn’t trust with their political enemies. George W. Bush was president for 8 years, and then Barack Obama inherited—and expanded— his executive power. On the flipside, President Obama will be replaced with someone in January 2017—possibly a Republican.
Before jumping to the defense of the Executive Branch, Democrats in Congress should ask themselves: Am I really supporting the secret collection of innocent civilian phone records, or just the personalities currently enforcing it?
Power corrupts, regardless of political party. In hindsight, Republicans should have stopped the Bush Administration from ever gaining this power through the Patriot Act. The Bush Administration was notorious for trampling on civil liberties, but the Obama Administration’s record is shockingly even worse.
The bottom line: No President of the United States should ever have the power to secretly spy on innocent civilians, regardless of his or her political affiliation or well-intention.
The vast majority of Americans are law-obeying citizens that are of no threat to society. But that doesn’t mean privacy is a non-issue for the innocent. We must defend and protect our privacy, no matter what we chose to do behind closed doors. The NSA spying on our private phone conversations is an appalling violation of freedom, and we should all be outraged.