Friday, June 14, 2013

Big Brother IS Watching--Why You Should Care Even if You Are Not Doing Anything Wrong

In the novel, The Chosen, which I co-authored last year, the year is 2017 and the United States government has established the Electronic Communications Agency to monitor all speech and electronic communications.  Two whistle blowers get a list of Americans who have been wrongly incarcerated under the indefinite detention provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act and launch a website to raise public awareness of the mass arrests that are taking place.  But the ECA is able to use its new powers to shut down the website and when the whistleblowers are located they themselves are imprisoned as domestic terrorists under the detention provisions of the NDAA.

This story seemed less like fiction over the last few days as Edward Snowden revealed massive surveillance being conducted by the NSA regarding Americans texts, emails, Internet searches, phone calls, and now it appears even financial and credit card transactions. While I was not particularly surprised to find out that such a program is underway, or that the Feds are constructing a massive storage facility in Utah to house all of our information for decades to come, or even that our politicians on both sides of the aisle are defending this practice, what does surprise me is the number of otherwise intelligent, reasonably well-informed Americans who don't seem to mind that this is happening.  The attitudes of a lot of Americans could best be summarized by the comments of the two anchors of the top rated morning show in El Paso, Texas, who, on the morning the story aired, both joked that if federal agents were listening in on them, the agents would be really bored.  This, "I'm not doing anything wrong, so I don't have anything to worry about" attitude is a prevailing reason that we have allowed to our government to become so bloated that the very size of government is now being used as an excuse for the abuses in the recently uncovered IRS scandal.  Most Americans who are just living their lives and not planning nefarious acts tend to believe that it doesn't matter how much surveillance we have because police only arrest bad guys.

There are so many problems with this concept.  First of all, in a society where laws continue to proliferate, we continue to redefine what criminal behavior is.  This morning, the Heritage Foundation featured an excellent video on the overcriminalization of America and how it affects otherwise law-abiding citizens who are found breaking laws they had no idea existed.  When we add to this problem the problem of massive surveillance we have created a perfect storm for virtually anyone to be arrested on any pretext at any time.  And as that net of laws grows, the surveillance creates a bigger swath of suspects. Let's look at a few of the issues here:

1.  Hate speech.  Hate speech is one of those vaguely defined euphemisms for "You said something I don't like, so now I am coming after you."  Within the past few weeks we have seen growing encroachments on our time honored, Constitutionally-protected freedom of speech.  The Department of Justice recently suggested that it will no longer tolerate Internet posts maligning Islam.  Sen. Lindsey Graham has suggested that bloggers are not protected by the First Amendment.  (Sorry Senator:  ALL Americans are protected by the First Amendment--those who blog and those who don't.)  Congressman Peter King thinks that journalists should no longer be allowed to report on sensitive information and should be prosecuted if they do.  So, if in the course of an NSA sweep, some twenty-something who aspires to get promoted rather than assassinated notes a pattern of inflammatory speech in certain social media shares or posts, he may immediately report this to the DOJ who can then send two agents to your door in the wee hours of the morning to arrest you in your pajamas for spouting your Constitutionally protected opinions online.

2. Threats to National Security.  We are going down an ultra slippery slope here.  Under the NDAA, which the House of Representatives voted to uphold this week, American citizens who are threats to national security can be detained indefinitely without trial and held "until the cessation of hostilities."  To qualify, those charged are supposed to have connections to Al-Qaeda or its affiliates, but if we continue down the road we are going, that definition will soon be broadened.  Have you made hateful comments about the President in a text message or an email?  Have you complained about Congress or the Senate, or even your local mayor?  At what point does speaking against the government, or any of its agents, or even just the really inept cashier at City Hall who can't count change, make you an enemy of the state and subject you to arrest and detention?  Once we start censoring some types of speech we are on a path that leads to some past brutal European monarchies of the middle ages who had laws making it a criminal act to speak ANYTHING about the ruler or the government, whatsoever, even if it were positive, because the people had no right to comment on their government at all.

Well, you may be thinking, that does not apply because the NSA is not keeping the content of our emails, phone calls or texts--just the Metadata.  (We know this must be so because our government is comprised of such a trustworthy group of outstanding, virtuous men and women who would never misrepresent the truth.)  The NSA is also tracking your on line searches.  Have you ever visited a website that the government might not like?  No, I am not talking about How to Build a Nuclear Weapon in Ten Easy  What about the website of the American Center for Law and Justice or some similar Constitutional attorney, or even a civil liberties group like the ACLU which filed suit against the federal government this week over the NSA surveillance?  Or perhaps you have visited the websites of one of the rabble-rousing politicians who is standing against the tide of public opinion--somebody like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul?  Have you visited a website for a Crisis Pregnancy Center or a Pro-Life Advocacy group? Are you a libertarian, or a tea party member?  Have you ever visited a site hosted by anyone with these leanings just out of curiosity?  Have you ever contributed money to any of these people or organizations?   If the answer to that final question is yes, you undoubtedly used your credit card to do so, so they have your information twice.

Do you read, listen to, or in some form consume alternative media--whether left or right?  Those visits have been noted and logged.  A government that wants to control what the people are saying needs to also control what they are thinking and to whom they are listening.  By tracking each search and log in, the NSA can track where Americans are getting their information.  In The Chosen, the ECA has the power to simply shut down any website that they deem to be "Anti-American" and those hosting such a sight are then turned over to Homeland Security as domestic terrorists.  We are planting the seeds for this to become a reality with the surveillance programs that are occurring right now.

But suppose that you are not interested in politics--left, right or libertarian--at all.  You don't listen to alternative media.  You use the Internet only to feed your all consuming passion for celebrity gossip and to catch up the latest news on Beyonce and Kim Kardashian.  Then the following test of whether you have anything to worry about from the NSA surveillance program might just be for you. (My brother, who is a twenty-year operations manager for a television station put these questions to the cub reporters in the newsroom when they told him that they were not worried about government surveillance.  Think about them carefully.)

1. Have you ever had an affair--either while you were married or with a married person?  Did you send emails, texts or some other electronic communications to your paramour?
2. Have you ever watched online porn--even just once out of curiosity? 
3. Have you ever logged on to a gay porn website just out of curiosity?
4. Have you ever been involved in a gay relationship that you wanted to keep a secret?  Did you text or email the other person?
5.  Have you ever smoked pot?  Perhaps your usage was recreational and occasional, but you sent text messages to your dealer when you were ready to buy.
6. Have you engaged in a flirtatious relationship with a co-worker where you sent racy texts?  Perhaps it never went further than online flirting, but you messaged each other a lot of provocative material.
7. Have you ever posted racy, provocative photos of yourself online, or texted them or emailed them to another person?

How would you feel if your spouse or your family or your co-workers or your boss suddenly knew about any of this behavior?  The NSA has the  meta data for all of these activities stored in a huge warehouse.  Imagine that a decade from now you have an opportunity as a journalist to publish a big story exposing government or some well connected individual.  You are ready to go public when you get a phone call explaining to you that your personal information is going to be exposed if you go forward with the story.  You have just lost the ability to hold government accountable.  Any opportunity for real journalism is dead in a world where the government stores all of its secrets and airs them at will.  What if you are not a journalist but an attorney in a civil rights suit, or a judge ruling on the legality of a government action?  What if you are a major donor of an organization the government does not like?  What if you are engaged in a battle with a union leader who is a supporter of the Administration?  What if you decide to run for office?

Let me just say flatly that I do not for one minute believe the story that only meta data is being stored, if for no other reason that the federal government has lied to us all so much for the past few years that I cannot see any good reason why they would start being honest now.  But even if that is the truth and all they are collecting is the websites we browse and the phone numbers we call and text with the frequency with which we do so, this is too much information.  The federal government now has a lens through which to do a microscopic examination of every person who might challenge them in any way.  If you are one of those Americans who still believes that the Obama Administration is incapable of misusing its power to harm the citizenry, just remember that in three years there will be a different Administration led by a different individual.  No American can be so completely asleep to insist that No Administration will ever use the information being collected to persecute, silence or falsely imprison those who challenge them.  We have to stand against this now while we still have a voice and we can still speak out.  If we fail to do so, the heavy price we pay in the future will be our own fault.

Watch Alexandra's video presentation on the threat that the global environmental movement poses to freedom and the Constitution. 

Alexandra Swann is the author of No Regrets: How Homeschooling Earned me a Master's Degree at Age Sixteen and several other books. Her newest novel, The Chosen, about one small group of Americans' fight to restore the Constitution and end indefinite detentions without trial, is available on Kindle and in paperback. For more information, visit her website at

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