Every few days, we learn yet one more way in which govern-ment’s expanded surveillance powers intrude upon our privacy and civil liberties.
Last week, it was the revelation that spy agencies in the U.S. and Britain have been snagging personal data from the users of mobile phone apps. Before that came news the NSA was tracking our social connections; that it was delving into our contact lists; that it was logging our telephone calls; and that it had figured out how to conduct surveillance on some 100,000 computers around the world. It appears the agency can do anything it wants when it comes to collecting information on pretty much anyone it wants.
We can take pride in this technological virtuosity, but it has propelled an expansion of government power unlike anything I’ve seen since I joined Congress 50 years ago. The NSA’s surveillance and monitoring abilities are unprecedented and seem unlimited. So we face the crucial question of how we can prevent abuse of the capabilities the NSA has been given. Our challenge is to put into place a permanent system to oversee that power.
The agency gained its capabilities over the course of at least a decade with the full knowledge of some members of Congress and the judiciary, and of the White House. This is perplexing. At a time of rising public suspicion of government, did those in the know really believe no public policy debate was necessary?
The intelligence community has convinced two presidents, leading members of Congress, and a series of judges that our safety depends on its ability to discover plots against us by tracking connections among adversaries. Although in the end federal data collection programs will continue and not fundamentally change, a spirited public debate about these spying powers is now underway, covering the scope, legality, costs and benefits of the programs.