Is the NSA Really "Spying" On Us?

There is a huge hullabaloo brewing over the Patriot Act, specifically Section 215, and its reauthorization.  The program of collecting metadata from Internet and other communication sources is set to expire on May 31st and Congress must make a decision soon about whether to continue, cease, or alter the program.  First made public by Edward Snowden, this is an NSA program that collects bulk data such as numbers dialed or websites accessed or e-mails sent, a time stamp, a length of the communication, and to whom the communication is made.  This information is then stored and computers search for patterns in order to unveil potential terrorist webs.

Two things add to the drama besides the over-riding “fight against terrorism” versus personal liberty theme.  First, an Appeals Court in Washington DC recently ruled that the program was illegal in that the NSA had no authority under Section 215 to institute the program.  They did not rule on the constitutionality of the program since the case was strictly one of statutory interpretation.  However, many welcomed the decision as a victory for personal liberty and privacy which brings me to the second part of the drama.

We are heading into a presidential election year and currently four Senators (Cruz, Paul, Rubio and Sanders) and possibly a fifth (Graham) are candidates.  These are the people trying to take a stand and make a name for themselves now with this issue.  Thus far, Sanders, Cruz and Paul have taken a stand against the Section 215 program with Paul erroneously tweeting that the court decision was a victory for the Constitution (the Constitution was not involved in the decision) and Graham and Rubio fighting for the program.  Among the other candidates or possible candidates, Huckabee and Carson have weighed in against the program while Chris Christie has been the only solid supporter with Perry and Walker giving vague answers and Clinton, of course, giving NO answer.

Let’s be clear about this program.  As Chris Christie noted, he is perhaps the only candidate or potential candidate who has actually had practical experience with the Patriot Act and he makes a good argument that we should not let our guard down.  There are nefarious characters and groups out there who care little about civil liberties and the “rules” of the game.  They have co-opted the Internet to recruit people and to plan terrorist acts.  They have become experts in concealing their digital fingerprints.

As Rubio stated on the floor of the Senate, there is not one single shred of evidence to suggest that the NSA used this program to “spy” illegally on any American.  The program collects the data then uses sophisticated computer software programs to detect patterns, or connect the dots.  In the hand-wringing after 9/11, people were outraged that our intelligence community was unable to “connect the dots.”  It even led to some great conspiracy theories over the years.  Bush was blamed for not heeding an amorphous “warning” in an Intelligence Brief that stated Al Qaeda and bin Laden were going to try a terrorist attack against Americans.  Well, duh!  Yet when we create the very tools to actually “connect the dots” we then throw a wrench into those tools and dismantle them because of something that “might” happen even though the “might happen” never actually happened in 14 years of the Patriot Act.  Terrorists do not play in the world of hypothetical situations.

Secondly, we as Americans addicted to the Internet, regularly surrender our “privacy” on a daily basis.  It is the very reason you have a spam folder.  Every time you use a credit card online or even visit a website, information is stored on you- your age, your location, what you bought, when you bought it, where you live, your buying patterns, the websites you visit.  When you sign up with an internet provider, we all just scroll down the page and hit the “I accept” tab in our eagerness to get onto the Internet.  If you actually read what comes before it, you are allowing that internet service provider broad access to a host of things about you.  Did you ever wonder why if, for example, you order garden seeds online, your spam folder is filled with the wonders of gardening and home improvement?  Click on on of these things in your spam file- home improvement, for example- and the next day you will receive more spam from not only gardening and home improvement outlets, but probably many solicitations for the joys of home refinancing.  Hit age 55, and you get spam on joining AARP, senior benefits and Viagra.  Make an online donation to the RNC and you will receive spam from a host of conservative sites.  These messages are not random! The same goes for using those cards on your key ring for the grocery store and the convenience of using the EZ Pass lane comes with a sacrifice to your driving privacy.  And the data is stored a lot longer than the NSA stores this information.

They are the result of metadata obtained and stored by the internet service provider and sold- WITH YOUR PERMISSION.  Hence, more private information is obtained on you by private interests in a variety of areas than the NSA stores on you.  Only if a pattern is detected does the NSA then “read” e-mails or correspondence.  It is then that they go to a FISA court and obtain a warrant for deeper investigation.  Granted, perhaps the FISA court- which is generally a rubber stamp for government warrants- requires some revision and greater oversight, but if the NSA’s collection of metadata leads to reasonable suspicion that my good neighbor Mohammed up the street is stockpiling fertilizer in his garage, I want to be damn sure “the dots are connected.”

While we hand-wring about “but this could happen” scenarios, the bad guys are making it actually happen.  This writer finds it ironic that we voluntarily surrender our privacy in our zeal to join the digital age, but then bitch when actual privacy is not even compromised when national security is at stake.  Rubio is right and got two points on my ledger.  Woe to the Congress that weakens the hand of our government to stop the next 9/11.