The Guardian newspaper obtained a copy of a classified court order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court whereby Verizon, a major American telephone services company, was forced to turn over to the Federal Bureau of Intelligence vast calling records of all of its subscribers. This rather chilling procedure was ostensibly authorized under the provisions of the Patriot Act, which came into force in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and was intended to better equip the nation in its war against terrorism.
No one would dispute that security agencies and police forces require special powers to combat the terrorist threat. However, they had those powers prior to 9/11. The police can follow suspects surreptitiously, tap their phones when authorized on proof of probable cause, and obtain search warrants to advance a criminal investigation. Using these traditional powers, the police have successful combatted major crimes without unduly jeopardizing individual privacy, a fundamental value underlying our notion of a free and democratic society.
We have now learned that the National Security Agency has even gone further, obtaining access to servers, including those of Facebook and Google, which store vast amounts of personal information generated by their clients and users. In a facile and disingenuous response, President Barack Obama declared that U.S. citizens were not targeted, as though Facebook or Google require proof of citizenship before the opening of an account.
The state is now spying indiscriminately on its own people, but to what end? Given the known intelligence on the Boston marathon bombers, it is likely that this attack could have been avoided had competent police officers responded using traditional investigative methods. Rather, the state seems content to empower faceless bureaucratic police agencies with the means to invade our individual privacy. By blithely sacrificing these core values, it can be safely argued that the terrorists are indeed winning.