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Tuesday, Nov 25, 2014
Commentary

We want limits on government surveillance


Published:

Call it the straw that broke the camel’s back or call it the tipping point, but Americans may finally be annoyed at the level of government surveillance of private communications.

Surveys as recent as June showed that the majority of Americans weren’t very concerned about the National Security Agency spying on their phone and Internet records. Many expressed the sentiment that those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear.

But a new poll by The Huffington Post showed a majority of respondents now believe the NSA needs increased oversight in its data gathering techniques.

Ironically, Americans came to this conclusion after our European allies expressed outrage that they were targets of surveillance.

For too long, we have been willing to allow intrusion into our privacy in the belief that we are protecting ourselves from terrorists. But the NSA’s actions have not been aimed at suspects alone.

The agency wants to monitor everything, sifting through information to find useful intelligence. It argues that only by detailed analysis of millions of records can it make connections that are otherwise unknown.

The fallacy of this process should be obvious to any college student in a statistics course.

With enough data, something is randomly going to correlate to something else.

Without a purposeful target of investigation, it is very possible innocent people can become suspects.

Someone with “nothing to hide” may have made phone calls to a suspect. None of us has any way of knowing whom the NSA considers suspicious.

A student working on a term paper about terrorism could become a suspect because he purchases a questionable book on Amazon. Maybe even looking at the “wrong” Wikipedia entries might cause someone to be a suspect.

Our nation’s founders may not have had phones or the Internet, but they were aware of the government’s desire to collect information.

The Fourth Amendment protects us from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” It doesn’t prevent the government from gathering information: it just requires that searches be reasonable.

America used to be known worldwide as the nation that protected personal freedom. We used to be the ones who advocated for the protection of rights in countries that were less free. Now, Brazil and Germany have asked the United Nations to pass a resolution calling on “all nations” to protect privacy, which is directed at one nation in particular. Companies in other countries are beginning to question their relationship with American Internet companies, impacting not just privacy but international business.

It’s time to respect the Fourth Amendment and stop gathering data from people who haven’t been suspected of anything.

Dom Caristi, a telecommunications professor at Ball State University in Indiana, serves as a member of the university’s Digital Policy Institute.

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