Is someone watching me?
With today's technological advances, it is not too surprising if someone is watching, at least from a distance.
Around us, friends snap photos on their phones and post them to Facebook. Above us, satellites—and sometimes drones—survey the surface of the earth. Below, our homes and cars show up on Google Maps and Street View. From within, the federal government collects and stores personal electronic information on giant databases in an effort to stop terrorists before they strike.
Have we lost too much privacy in America? Or, should we capitalize on the wealth of information available in order to make our nation safe?
The U.S. has a mixed history of surveillance. While intelligence gathering has taken place since the beginning of the country, increased forms of surveillance became possible with the invention of the telegraph, telephone, and other electronic forms of communication. In 1934, the federal Communications Act outlawed the sharing of wiretap information without authorization, but did not keep government spies from doing wiretaps. The 1960s saw a defense of individual privacy in the case of Katz v. United States and in the 1968 Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. The former backed "reasonable expectations of privacy" to protect individuals from warrantless searches even in places such as telephone booths. The latter limited wiretapping to instances of court authorization. However, both allowed for presidential authorization of wiretaps when the safety of the U.S. was at stake.
After conducting illegal and politically motivated wiretapping during the Watergate Scandal, President Richard Nixon risked impeachment in 1974 and resigned. The following year, a congressional committee under Senator Frank Church investigated warrantless wiretaps and surveillance conducted by the CIA and FBI on civil rights and labor leaders, war protesters, reporters, and political officials.
In reaction to surveillance abuses, the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) created a federal court that could authorize electronic surveillance on individuals (including U.S. citizens) suspected of working as foreign agents. In 1986, Congress passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) to protect privacy on emerging technologies such as Internet, which rapidly outpaced the law's provisions (legislation in 2013 attempted to amend the bill). Conversely, passage of CALEA (Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act) in 1994 required phone service providers to update equipment to facilitate surveillance by law enforcement agencies.
Surveillance increased after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Patriot Act, passed in 2001 under the Bush Administration, provided for roving wiretaps on suspects, removing the need for a separate warrant on different electronic devices. A "libraries provision" authorized the seizure of "tangible" documents and records for the purpose of terrorist investigations. In cases of foreign intelligence gathering, where FISA requirements were relaxed when wiretapping specifically for foreign intelligence, the Patriot Act required it only to be a "significant purpose." Further, "Sneak and Peek" warrants expanded the power of the FBI to search private premises and not notify the subject until after the search.
In 2002, President George W. Bush signed an order allowing the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct domestic spying on individual e-mails and telephone calls. This was in an effort not to lose time-sensitive information on terrorist threats (although the NSA had been spying on terrorist suspects with military assistance prior to Bush's order). The action was revealed in 2005 amidst debates over reauthorizing the Patriot Act. President Bush reauthorized the Patriot Act in 2006, and several sunset provisions were renewed in 2011 under the Obama administration.
To deal with concerns about warrantless domestic surveillance under Bush, Congress passed the Protect America Act in 2007 and the FISA Amendments Act in 2008. The administration compensated by creating a new secret, court-approved, data-mining program called PRISM.
In 2013, defense contractor Edward Snowden leaked information to the public about two NSA surveillance programs. On April 25, 2013, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had authorized a top secret order by the NSA requiring Verizon to daily hand over all phone records for three months. Data included phone numbers, duration, and location of the calls. The order was authorized under the business records provision of the Patriot Act. The NSA had already started bulk data-mining of phone records under the Bush Administration in 2001.
The leak also included data on the top secret PRISM program, which collects massive amounts of data via the information stored on servers of large companies like Google and Apple. According to Snowden, the system collects, analyzes, and stores "the communications of everyone" in an attempt to find terrorists and even gives some analysts the power to "wiretap anyone." The NSA has plans to store such data in the mammoth new Utah Data Center.
With revelations like these, the debate continues on how far is too far for government surveillance. Some say these actions violate the Fourth Amendment, which ensures protection from "unreasonable searches and seizures" and requires a justified warrant. Others claim that wiretaps and the collection of phone data records do not actually qualify as searching.
Beyond that are questions of privacy and government power. How much privacy should Americans forego in the quest for safety? How far can the government expand its surveillance and data-collection abilities without turning into a tyrannical "Big Brother"?
This topic examines the use of surveillance in America while addressing constitutional and personal concerns of privacy, safety, and freedom.