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You Can’t Opt Out: 10 NSA Myths Debunked

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Posted on Jan 13, 2014
hans s (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By Peter Van Buren, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

The debate Edward Snowden envisioned when he revealed the extent of National Security Agency (NSA) spying on Americans has taken a bad turn.  Instead of a careful examination of what the NSA does, the legality of its actions, what risks it takes for what gains, and how effective the agency has been in its stated mission of protecting Americans, we increasingly have government officials or retired versions of the same demanding—quite literally—Snowden’s head and engaging in the usual fear-mongering over 9/11. They have been aided by a chorus of pundits, columnists, and present as well as former officials offering bumper-sticker slogans like “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” all the while claiming our freedom is in direct conflict with our security.

It’s time to face these arguments directly. So here are ten myths about NSA surveillance that need debunking. Let’s sort them out.

1) NSA surveillance is legal.

True, if perhaps you put “legal” in quotes. After all, so was slavery once upon a time in the U.S. and apartheid in South Africa. Laws represent what a government and sometimes perhaps even a majority of the people want at a given point in time. They change and are changeable;  what once was a potential felony in Colorado is now a tourist draw.

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Laws, manipulated for terrible ends, must be challenged when they come into conflict with the fundamental principles and morals of a free society. Laws created Nelson Mandela, the terrorist (whom the U.S. kept on its terror watch list until 2008), and laws created Nelson Mandela, the president.

There’s a catch in the issue of legality and the NSA. Few of us can know just what the law is. What happens to you if you shoplift from a store or murder someone in a bar fight? The consequences of such actions are clearly codified and you can look them up. Is it legal to park over there? The rules are on a sign posted right where you’d like to pull in. If a cop tickets you wrongly, you can go to court and use that sign to defend yourself. Yet almost all of the applicable “law,” when it comes to the National Security Agency and its surveillance practices, was secret until Edward Snowden began releasing his documents. Secret interpretations of the shady Patriot Act made in a secret court applied. The fact that an unknown number of legal memos and interpretations of that secret law (themselves still classified) are operative means that we really don’t know what is legal anymore.

The panel of experts appointed by President Obama to review the Snowden revelations and the NSA’s actions had a peek into the issue of “legality” and promptly raised serious questions—as did one of the two federal courts that recently ruled on some aspects of the issue. If the Obama administration and the Justice Department really believe that all the NSA’s activities will be proven legal in a court of law, why not allow them to be tested openly and unambiguously in public? After all, if you’ve done nothing illegal, then there’s nothing to hide.

When Amnesty International first tried to bring such a question before the courts, the case was denied because that organization couldn’t prove that it had been subject to monitoring—that was a secret, of course!—and so was denied standing even to bring the suit. Snowden’s revelations seem to have changed all that. The documents made public have given “standing” to a staggering array of individuals, organizations, and countries. For the first time in 12 years, they pave the way for the issue to come to its proper venue in front of the Supremes. Openly. Publicly.

2) If I’ve done nothing wrong, I have nothing to hide. So why should I care about any of this?

Keep in mind that the definition of “wrong” can quickly change. And if you don’t know what the actual law really is, how can you say that you know you have done nothing wrong? If you’ve got nothing to hide, post your social security number and credit card information online, leave your curtains open at night, and see how that sits with you.

In a larger sense, however, the very idea that “I’ve got nothing to hide” is a distraction. The Fourth Amendment guarantees a right to privacy. The Constitution does not ask if you want or need that right; it grants it to everyone, and demands that the government interfere with it only under specific circumstances.

The Fourth Amendment came into being because of the British use of general warrants in the colonial era. Under that “law,” they could legally search whole groups of people, their possessions, and their papers without having to justify searching any specific person. Called “writs of assistance,” these general warrants allowed the King’s agents to search anyone, anytime, regardless of whether they suspected that person of a crime. The writs were most often used by Royal Customs agents (an irony perhaps, given the draconian powers now granted to U.S. Customs agents to search anyone’s personal electronics, including those of American citizens, at the border).


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