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Is anybody listening?
Governments use of surveillance to keep us safe from attacks still raises concerns
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“Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, ‘All right, you can have a telephone but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. ... Mister, you may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.’” — Spencer Tracy, as Henry Drummond in “Inherit the Wind”

In the post 9-11 era, Americans have become somewhat accustomed to the idea of being watched. But who, we should ask, is watching the watchers?

Last week, Congress approved extending portions of the Patriot Act that allow for domestic surveillance of terrorism suspects, but with changes. The newly dubbed USA Freedom Act extends some surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act, but changes the National Security Agency’s ability to gather bulk data from U.S. phone records, the most contentious aspect of domestic eavesdropping. To date, there has been no decision made about the fate of the information already gathered from years of glass-to-the-wall phone monitoring.

It is wise to take steps to protect U.S. citizens from violent attacks, but the price paid must always be measured carefully, lest we give up the very freedom our enemies want to destroy. As it turns out, even then the government will continue to stretch those limits to the breaking point.

We learned last week that the Obama administration has expanded the NSA’s authority to seek out foreign threats transmitted via the Internet. Surveillance of Web traffic has gone on for years without warrants required under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, as the 1978 law predated the Internet.

Just as water finds a way around any obstacle, so will federal snoops. And, it should be noted, so will the terrorists. It’s difficult to fight a war against a shadowy foe fought on invisible and ill-defined battlegrounds. The same technology that allows law agencies to spy on potential terrorists gives those groups the same access to dodge those gatekeepers.

The cyberworld we live in is the ultimate tradeoff, where most of us can download, upload and find any tidbit of information at the swipe of a screen. But so can the government, or anyone else with a modicum of training and the desire to make a buck (which also includes the government).

Or even to start a revolution. All it takes is a movement on the Twittersphere and riots erupt. We saw it in Egypt, in Syria and more recently in Baltimore and Seattle.

Like it or not, much of our lives is being stored in a cloud, down to gadgets we can wear on our wrists to track our heart rates and blood pressure. And that cloud looms over both our privacy and freedom.

We willingly give our information to the government every year in the form of a tax return, yet we balk at the idea of the NSA looking without provocation at our phone records. And just last week the IRS revealed that 104,000 Americans have had their personal information stolen in a data breach because of computers that weren’t properly upgraded.

Even worse, a massive data breach compromised information for up to 4 million federal workers, suspected to be conducted by hackers within China. So it’s clear the feds can’t effectively protect whatever information they have stored. Is it wise to let them gather more?

Technology isn’t cheap, to make nor to own. And the price is getting ever higher. Is tracking a few numbers to prevent another 9/11 a small price to pay in a world where privacy, at best, isn’t what it used to be? It’s a question we shouldn’t stop asking.

That brings up the other question we should ask amid the ongoing freedom vs. security discussion: Are the efforts to prevent terror attacks working or merely look-sees designed to make us think we’re safer than we really are, including those that infringe upon personal privacy?

Last week, it was learned that exercises meant to test security measures at U.S. airports failed miserably. Homeland Security Department airport screeners posing as passengers were able to smuggle bombs and weapons aboard planes over more than a decade, records show. Members of Congress revealed that such undercover tests failed to filter out weapons in 67 of 70 tries at Transportation Security Administration airport checkpoints.

Three out of 70 is a terrible batting average in any league. And for this, air travelers are inconvenienced, probed, frisked and prohibited from taking shampoo aboard planes?

There’s no way to know for sure how many actual terrorist plots may have been thwarted since 2001 by the Patriot Act provisions and other methods. We have not suffered another large-scale attack, beyond the Boston Marathon bombing executed by a pair of brothers. That alone gives credence to the idea security measures not only are working, but are necessary.

Whether or not Edward Snowden is a national traitor, his revelations have shown we still need strict guidelines on gathering of surveillance to ensure the threats are real and such steps are needed to head them off. The burden of proof must always be on the police state to show its methods are valid, legal and effective. So far, that record remains spotty. It’s hoped the newly minted rules will lead to better results and fewer breaches of civil liberties.

And let us remember the double-edged sword of giving up freedom for security: Sometimes, you may wind up with neither.

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