Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Justice Department is gathering data from the cellphones of suspected criminals by using devices attached to small planes which fly out from “at least five” metropolitan-area airports. The program collects identifying information about the suspects, as well as their general location. Worryingly, the device also gathers information about innocent Americans who happen to be in the vicinity of the suspect. There is no information about whether this extra data is stored or used — if it is collected, it would breach an appeals court ruling that deemed such behavior unconstitutional. The program is the latest example of the U.S. government playing fast and loose with the civil liberties of law-abiding, everyday Americans. President Barack Obama has failed in his promise that transparency would be a “touchstone” of his presidency.
This is not the first U.S. program in which innocent civilians are subject to dragnet surveillance, where large groups are monitored as opposed to specific individuals or groups being targeted. In June 2013, Edward Snowden revealed the existence of the National Security Agency’s PRISM program, which monitored millions of people as they used Google, Facebook and other websites. Pervasive dragnet surveillance has been a contentious issue for years in the United States, and its efficacy is disputed. In December 2013, a presidential review group found that such data collection was “not essential to preventing attacks.” Despite these findings, the U.S. surveillance apparatus continues to turn its lens inward, conducting espionage on its own soil.
When NSA presentation slides with stated motives, “collect it all, know it all, process it all, exploit it all, partner it all, sniff it all,” were leaked, it became clear that the United States wanted to do more than spy on foreign bodies — it wanted to create a world where every communication is “collected” and “exploited.” Pervasive spying has a profoundly negative impact on a population and free speech, as well as hitting U.S. businesses abroad. The Obama administration must re-examine tactics such as cellphone tracking and online monitoring if they are to condemn repressive regimes in other parts of the world.
Defending the use of these cellphone tracking devices, the Wall Street Journal quoted a Justice Department official who said that discussing the matter at length would reveal sensitive information about U.S. surveillance capabilities. The lack of transparency surrounding these surveillance programs is stifling a much-needed public debate about the constitutionality and morality of spying on innocent Americans. Citizens need to decide whether privacy infringement is a cost worth paying in exchange for diminished civil liberties. A vigorous public debate is necessary to analyze the implications of warrantless spying.
A version of this article appeared in the Nov. 24 print edition. Email Tommy Collison at [email protected]