The right to be left alone

Readers of blogs and other politically inspired media will likely get very familiar with the word “privacy” in the weeks following the resumption of the full Congress at the end of the month.

While Congress debates the reinstatement of the PATRIOT Act, members will be discussing President Bush’s presumably illegal authorization of spying on American citizens. There can be no doubt that the president’s activities have served to undermine the very “war on terror” that we are prosecuting.

Right wing apologists for the president, who often make the disputed claim that other presidents have authorized this type of spying, have tried to diminish the seriousness of the matter by claiming that only would-be terrorists have been injured.

The problem is, nobody knows exactly what technology was used for the spying. Many have assumed that some version of Echelon is being used.

“Echelon,” according to Bruce Schneier’s security technology weblog,, “is the world’s largest information ‘vacuum cleaner,’ sucking up a staggering amount of voice, fax and data communications —satellite, microwave, fiber-optic, cellular and everything else—from all over the world: an estimated 3 billion communications per day. These communications are then processed through sophisticated data-mining technologies, which look for simple phrases like ‘assassinate the president’ as well as more complicated communications patterns.”

In other words, all communications that are not written by hand or face to face are searched. And patterns don’t have to be “more complicated.” They can also be simpler, like “Islam,” “offshore account number” or “casualties.”

At first glance, many people believe they haven’t had communicative contact with people outside the United States. Really? Haven’t received or made a call relating to a credit card? Haven’t called for support on a software question? Haven’t made an international purchase on the Internet? Perhaps you read a foreign newspaper? Maybe you made a donation for victims of the tsunami?

It is virtually impossible to determine where your communications have taken you in this world.

When our Constitution is subverted by the very people who have sworn to protect it, all Americans are injured. And while the courts have ever more narrowly defined what is meant by “illegal search and seizure,” we still have the Fourth Amendment. It states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Under Echelon and other more sophisticated mechanisms all communications are searched, without probable cause or any cause at all. This type of surveillance damages our inherent human rights to be curious and to try to inform ourselves, since the very information we seek can bring us into the focused light of a fear-driven administration. And once you’ve innocently crossed the line in a “communication” you didn’t even know crossed the border, what’s to stop the government from looking at you closer here in the States?


Think only terrorists have been injured? Think again.