Security vs. Safety

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This morning during my daily news intake, I read this article on the Obama administration defending the National Security Agency (NSA) collecting the phone records of “millions of U.S. citizens.” The administration official of course spoke anonymously, and he/she only defended the practice of collecting this information–he/she didn’t confirm that it had actually been done. Being of the mind that where there’s smoke, there’s usually some kind of fire (and I witnessed one in the alley next to my house last night), I think this deserves some of my attention.

First of all, I am outraged. What happened to the Obama of the 2004 DNC that said one person or group’s rights being eschewed in the name of ‘national security’ was a threat to all of our civil liberties? Or the 2008 Obama that penned this piece on FISA? Has the audacity of hope really fallen that far?

I’m not going to pretend to understand the intense level of responsibility that presidents and their administration officials feel toward protecting our nation’s security (one hopes). Can’t even begin to comprehend it. But I do understand what it means to protect someone. And that is what’s being lost here–no one person is being protected and no one person/group is the threat. Someone’s, let’s say mine (because they could be mine), privacy has been compromised with no legal cause or due process. And that is scary. The ironic half-jokes from the early 2000s about the Patriot Act’s invasive nature must have fallen on deaf ears (gotta love that photo). The same people that were standing at podiums talking about protecting our privacy against George W. Bush and his cronies are now committing the same sins in the name of the same gods or devils: national security. From who? At this moment, I’m more afraid of the government than Al Qaeda, because let’s be honest, which is more likely to happen? I will be involved in an act of mass terrorism, or my government will invade my privacy and neglect my legal rights? Which one do we all know is more likely to happen? Exactly. (And yes, I accept that maybe the latter is more likely to happen because of actions like this one in the name of national security, but I also tend to believe if someone has the intent of hurting people, they’ll find some way to do it.)

As a friend pointed out, with people sharing so much about themselves on the internet and through social media, ‘privacy,’ is becoming a buzzword. It’s a double-edged sword because people claim to care about it, but then they’ve got their place of work, their school, maybe even their address and phone number all up on Facebook. Working at an organization where privacy is a major issue, I’ve read some great columns on managing privacy settings online, as well as the paradox of allowing a company to track and share your behavior because there is no other way to use its service. (How many of us really read those Terms and Agreement things before signing up for Facebook? Ain’t nobody got time for that.) At the same time, the organization I work for is also a strong advocate for open access to information.

As this friend smartly pointed out to me on Facebook, with so many people living out in the open and choosing to use services like Facebook or Twitter, or anything else like them, what’s the big deal about this? It’s more of a legal issue than a privacy one. And what are you doing on your phone that you’re embarrassed about the government finding (all the photos I have of nail polish and my at-home manicures)?

The answer is: It’s a big deal because nobody asked me. Maybe I give Facebook permission to share my activities on my page, but at least they ask me first. (You know it’s bad when I’m saying Facebook is doing something good about privacy.)

I agree that in this digital age, really it’s not that hard to find information out about someone (except maybe the people who have something to hide). But this is what’s bothersome, exactly as my friend pointed out, that illegal things are being done by the government in the shadows (and I’ve never really believed that they won’t continue be done that way) without any explanation to the people who are being included in it. I accept that the government knows things I will never know and does things I’ll never know about. To some extent I trust that they know what they’re doing. Now, I’m not so sure. (Hello, Congress. Why don’t we vote to defund ACORN, again?)

People sign up for social media sites and choose what to share about themselves. Honestly, in the world of Google, we probably aren’t as in control of what’s out there about us as we’d like to be, but there is a semblance that we have some control. Last I checked, the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights that the administration pushed forward is supposed to increase consumer protection on the internet. And here is the administration allegedly authorizing the collection of records of God knows how many people, with no notice to those individuals, and without any explanation of the cause. But maybe that’s the point that hurts; it’s a ruse–we only have a semblance of control over our privacy. People only let us think that way when it suits them. (Okay, I sound super paranoid now, sorry).

If someone told me my phone bill was vital to finding terrorists, I’d gladly hand it over and say, “Find those sons of bitches!” But no one has given these people that choice, and it is legally their choice. As my friend aptly pointed out, this is ultimately more of a legal issue than a, “hey, big government, get your hands off my phone records!” For me, it’s also somewhat disappointing in this administration.

No, I don’t feel Barack Obama owes me anything. Truly, aside from trying his best to get the country moving forward, I don’t feel I have unrealistic expectations, and I do think he’s trying to accomplish that. But if these allegations turn out to be true, I think for me it signals the stunning blow that I was sold a somewhat false bill of goods. I wasn’t convinced before, you know, with Gitmo still being open. I’d even convinced myself the drone strikes are an unpleasant necessity of war. The innocent people who die in the name of protecting us and our interests? Well, war has casualties. Ugh, that sounds terrible even to say. That’s how much I really, truly believed that Obama would work to change Washington. That he wouldn’t really subject our nation to the kind of moral quagmire that put us in the position we were hoping he’d get us out of. I don’t want the U.S. to continue to be seen as a bully and selfish nation by the international community, and I don’t want our war machines to be the only weapons we use for diplomacy. But more than anything, I don’t want those weapons turned on me and my fellow citizens in the name of protecting ‘national security.’ If the individual is not safe from the government, than the nation is no longer safe. Maybe the government believes these infringements make us more secure, but I don’t feel safer for it.

I’m aware that given the recent horrific events during the Boston Marathon that there is a natural tendency to look inwards for the people who may choose to enact violence. (And yet gun control in light of Sandy Hook and dozens of other events remains a pipe dream.) And I know that in times of heightened perceived threat, it sometimes becomes easy to throw civil rights to the wayside, and I know that this isn’t as big a deal (physically) as someone being illegally round up, arrested, questioned, tortured, who knows. I get it. All I wanted to share is my disappointment that we are back on the slippery slope, and my frustration with myself for thinking we were ever going to get off of it.

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About Mariam Pera

Writer. Editor. Political news junkie. Chicago sports fanatic. Pop culture enthusiast. Victim of fangirl tendencies.

15 responses to “Security vs. Safety”

  1. realtalkrealdebate says :

    You make some valid points. I have a problem with outlandish government overreach. However, I feel that I cannot fault the current program for the following reasons:

    1. The practices were first initiated under the Bush administration. I supported the Patriot Act and the supposed wiretapping. it would hypocritical for me now to fault President Obama on a policy I previously supported simply because he is a Democrat.

    2. We honestly don’t know how much has come out of such practices. Our country could be saved from terrorist attacks on a yearly basis for all we know.

    Apparently the government isn’t listening to our conversations, but merely looking as to whom we call and the duration of the phone call. I am willing to cede that part of my privacy if it legitimately means savings lives. I have nothing to hide.

    I understand your point in that we should protect our civil liberties, before certain policies bring forth even more overreach.

    Again my overarching point in favor of the policy is that we really don’t know how much good it has done. I suspect more good has come out of it than we will ever know; especially if a president who ran in defiance for the essence of such practices continues to use such methods.

    • mariampera says :

      I appreciate the fact that yes, being able to tap someone’s cell phone to see who else they’re calling can be a great way to find criminals. But using the logic that anyone with a cell phone may be connected to terrorism, why can’t we take away everyone’s guns assuming anyone can start killing people at will? I just feel like this logic isn’t logical, first of all, and it’s selective. Picking and choosing when the government is going to impede on my civil liberties has nothing to do with me hiding anything (honestly, I feel bad for anyone monitoring my boring life). It has everything to do with this thing called freedom that we supposedly stand (and invade countries) for.

      I get it. I don’t want to sound like a hack by saying the government shouldn’t ever be able to access things. Just think how many murders and acts of terrorism it might have stopped! It sounds like a great solution. All I was saying was that they need to be notifying people of it ahead of time. And I get it, sometimes there isn’t time to check these things before acting. Did we check with Pakistan before taking Bin Laden out? No. I’m not saying there is a simple answer to any of this. I’m making the point that it doesn’t make me feel safer. When you start tightening the ropes on people’s hands, it makes them think there’s more to be afraid of. These people want us to be afraid of something, terrorists, whatever.

      It’s like when I’m at the airport and they see my passport: Mother born in Iran, Father born in Iraq. Okay, I get it. Now maybe I seem like the perfect candidate American-born domestic terrorism. I understand. But every moment the TSA is hassling me on why did I decide to take a vacation by myself to London, they are actually missing an opportunity to catch someone who is considering actually doing something. General information really isn’t useful. If Boston teaches us anything it’s that you don’t know who the threat is going to come from. So treat everyone like a threat? Do we really want to live in a country like that? I don’t. But again, I understand how complex an issue this is. But ask yourself if you feel any safer for it.

      • realtalkrealdebate says :

        It might be a bit inconceivable to notify suspected terrorists or criminals: “oh hey we are going to be checking your phone records.” Seems to be a bit counter intuitive. I don’t think they should check everyone’s phone records, but how do you differentiate who is a threat (especially in light of the Boston attacks). I think most people know that we have a far less sense of privacy than we did thirty years ago. I’m sure criminals, at least the smart ones, know that their phone records are being seized.

        I know this stance might be in contrast to my other opinions, but I feel that this disclosure isn’t as big of an overreach in exchange for bountiful benefits. But as McArdle stated in that article I shared with you, if we don’t put up a fight this may only urge them to do conduct more intrusive methods.

      • mariampera says :

        Definitely don’t want to be telling people you’re after them, although anyone with a guilty conscience probably already knows. But yes, we do have to put up a fight. Privacy has become increasingly limited over the years. Why hasn’t safety gone up? It seems like we have more violence in the world, not less.

      • realtalkrealdebate says :

        I actually read a blog post from one of our followers that overall crime in this country has gone down. The number of murders has gone down. It is the number of mass tragedies that has gone up (aurora theater, Sandy Hook). The media attention on such tragedies has depicted a picture of raised violence.

      • mariampera says :

        Well if *those* represent the violence that is rising, why aren’t we addressing those issues (gun control, mental health)? Where were these wiretaps in figuring out these shooters were going to commit acts like this?

      • realtalkrealdebate says :

        Because only certain stories are sensationalized.

      • mariampera says :

        I don’t think the media sensationalized Sandy Hook. Those are massive tragedies that deserve to be covered. Because we should be asking ourselves those questions. If we are willing to give up our right to privacy, why won’t we give up our guns? Oh, wait. Because we are afraid of each other.

        We can’t love our neighbors if we don’t know them, and definitely not if we’re afraid of them. I just feel like this position is somewhat counter intuitive of Obama’s “love thy neighbor” attitude that encourages us to pay more in taxes and invest in education and infrastructure.

      • realtalkrealdebate says :

        I was stating more in general.

      • mariampera says :

        It’s all well and good to be protecting America, Dianne Feinstein, but what about protecting Americans? What is the point of being an American citizen if we’re so willing to turn on ourselves? I’m in a bit of an existential crisis with this.

    • mariampera says :

      Also, I appreciate you using the same logic under Bush as Obama. I expect nothing less from you. 😉

  2. Nancy says :

    When will you Gen Xer’s realize he lied to you all. He pumped you up with Hope to get your vote & then turned around to put more restrictions on our lives than any other President. His TRANSPARENCY is getting cloudier & cloudier by the minute! They want to take away Freedom of the Press rights, this past week your DNA & now you phone records. So why are you so concerned about phone records…..

    • mariampera says :

      Thanks for the comment, Nancy.

      I am disappointed with Obama on this issue, but if we’re going to be really honest with ourselves, this has been going on for over a decade now. This isn’t anything new. I’m sure every one who becomes president would like to limit freedoms that are contrary to the goals they want to achieve. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could do things without any media backlash? Obama is as much a politician as anyone, and he’s actually a pretty good one. I’m fairly certain that he, as I hope most rational people, would find a way to protect civil liberties and our national security if he could. It just happens people think one is more important than the other. Maybe I’d feel different about it if I had to make a speech every time an act of terrorism or natural disaster takes American lives. But right now, this argument for our security isn’t making me feel safer.

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