Government way off-balance on privacy

Just when you thought federal intrusion couldn’t go much further, we learn the government knows far more about our business than we’d ever imagined.

Politically motivated shakedowns by the IRS and the Department of Justice war on the free press were just the scandal undercard. It turns out, unless you’re communicating via carrier pigeon or smoke signals, Washington knows who you talk to, when you talk and how long you talk. The government has records of pretty much every phone call you’ve made and all your Internet communications, as well, dating back perhaps as far as 2007.

Last week, it was first revealed that the National Security Agency was collecting the daily phone logs of millions of Verizon customers. Then it was reported that the NSA and the FBI were surveilling data from nine Internet companies — mostly major players such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple and YouTube — tracking every person’s movements and contacts over time. Finally, NBC reported the government’s objective was to collect data on “every call made in America.”

This is not a tea party or a media issue. Snooping of this degree should command outrage from people of all political stripes, because everybody is a target.

When George W. Bush was president, civil libertarians rightly complained about the passage of the Patriot Act. As a U.S. senator and presidential candidate, Barack Obama campaigned against the anti-terrorism law, riding the anti-Bush wave.

But the spying unleashed upon ordinary citizens since 2007, and kept in tight secrecy until last week, goes far beyond the reach of the Patriot Act — which, by the way, is longer than ever under Mr. Obama’s watch, despite his past objections.

The Patriot Act gives authorities wide latitude in monitoring individuals under suspicion as part of investigations. Now everyone in the United States and everyone overseas who communicates with people in the United States is a suspect? Since when has it been an ideal in this country to put more than 300 million people under suspicion, subject to the scrutiny of national security analysts, to try to catch a minuscule number of terrorists? The monitoring program hasn’t even proved capable of doing that — a senior U.S. intelligence official said the Internet spying helped foil a militant Islamist plot to bomb New York City’s subway system in 2009, but further reports, citing public documents, indicated it might have been solid police work that foiled the plot.

The cost of this whole undertaking no doubt is enormous and assuredly not worth the price, in treasure and privacy rights. The government has nearly limitless opportunities to abuse this power, and if the IRS scandal has taught us anything, it’s that abuse is inevitable.

President Obama is defending all this, saying, “I think we’ve struck the right balance,” when it comes to weighing privacy concerns against national security interests. If the government does not need probable cause to archive your communications, there is no balance. A major drawdown of this travesty is long overdue.

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