No, any surveillance is an intrusion

Then presidential candidate Barack Obama thundered in 2007 in a fiery speech that the George W. Bush administration was “putting forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide” in opposing the warrantless wire tapping program and promised that he would end the practice as President. Here we are six years later with a President Obama and we now have a National Security Agency (NSA) program called PRISM that allegedly collects, according to the Washington Post, emails, documents, photos, and connection logs for millions of Americans arbitrarily by directly connecting to the servers of service providers such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google among others.

I believe that Candidate Obama was right and now President Obama is wrong.

Most rational Americans would, like me, give the government the benefit of doubt to do all it can to keep us safe. But, are such broad intrusions into ordinary American lives wise or necessary to keep our nation safe? While our Constitution itself does not explicitly deal with privacy, our nation’s founders in their infinite wisdom included several such provisions in the Bill of Rights—as the fourth amendment that protects the privacy of a person and possessions against unreasonable searches.

How about we adopt the Israeli model? They have kept their citizens safe despite facing terrorism for decades. Their sophisticated intelligence gathering targets highly probable suspects. Instead, we have been subjecting a 92 year old, fourth generation American lady to the same scrutiny at an airport as foreign tourists from countries that harbor terrorists. The PRISM program arbitrarily encroaches on ordinary law-abiding citizen’s privacy with the purpose of aggregating information and then looking for suspects. That seems to be dangerously similar to China where the public have ceded their privacy to their government.

President James Madison was absolutely right in his wise opinion when he said, “The loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or imagined, from abroad,” and then he went on to say that “All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.” We must be smart to get to those that could hurt us like the Boston Bombers that we never did despite a warning from Russia, instead of summarily encroaching on everyone’s privacy.

I believe that the American public should have been informed about this snooping. Without public awareness, a program like PRISM takes away a citizen’s right to privacy.

We know that data can be misused by those in power. We absolutely expect and trust the government to defend and protect us—but when it comes to our privacy, let us be prudent and cautious with some healthy skepticism about it falling into the wrong hands—even those of our own elected leaders.

Rameysh Ramdas, an S.F. Bay Area professional, writes as a hobby.


Yes, surveillance for protection is ok

I was listening to the news the other day on my way to work. The lead news story rendered by the anchor in somber tones was about the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance where major cell phone carriers were required to submit telephone records of clients to the government for security purposes. The next decidedly more cheerful story was about the acquisition of a company that sold information about cell phone users GPS locations to advertisers. The advertisers then would stream advertisements relevant to the location of the user. These stories present an interesting irony. It seems to be okay for private companies to profit from trading personal and private information but it is not okay for the government to use the same information to foil terror plots inside the United States.

Complaints about privacy ring hollow when people readily disclose personal information on social media. In a recent opinion column, Thomas Friedman pointed out that the surveillance which is needed to prevent another major attack actually protects our privacy. He argued that the emotional impact of a major attack would cause a vast majority of the citizens to turn over their privacy entirely to the government and result in an end of our free society. Further, there is no evidence that the government has misused the powers granted under the Patriot Act.

We live in an age where all kinds of information are easily accessible. The information-for-all genie is out of the bottle. It is time to have a conversation about how to balance privacy issues and security concerns in this new era.

When faced with the challenge of protecting the country from terrorism the President has aptly summed it up by saying that it is not possible to have both 100% privacy and 100% security. It is irrelevant and unproductive for the country to engage in this political debate without taking into account the purpose behind PRISM.

To his credit Obama apprised Congress of the details and obtained permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act  (FISA) Court as required by law. Every indication is that the PRISM program has been quite successful. In recent testimony before Congress the director of NSA identified over 50 plots that have been foiled by PRISM. Data shows that the government program is working. This does not mean that people should blindly turn over their privacy to the government. And on the flip side, declaring that PRISM failed because of the Boston bombings is dramatic overreaction.

In a recent Washington Post poll, 56% of the respondents were supportive of the PRISM program. This is a fine line that is going to be redrawn many times over in the coming days. Idealistic statements and proclamations from the past are not going to determine future policy. It’s a developing story, so stay tuned!

Mani Subramani works in the semi-conductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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