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Dragnet: spying in the digital age

December 30, 2013

It seems the time has come to reread George Orwell’s 65-year-old dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-four.” The questions it raises, about a fictional world in which each person is subjected to 24-hour surveillance in an authoritarian state, seem timelier now than ever, given what we have learned about the magnitude of electronic spying by our government’s National Security Agency (NSA), not only on foreign targets, but also, as it turns out, on Americans here at home. (If you think the bulk collection of data about our telephone calls is not spying, we beg to differ.)

We believe the time has come to think deeply about our desire for security, including these questions: How much do such high-tech spying programs that are intended to protect us jeopardize our fundamental values of privacy and liberty? Will the price we may have to pay in loss of privacy and liberty be worth it?

Just for a minute, set aside your judgment of whistleblower Edward Snowden—whether you consider him a criminal or a hero. This former NSA contractor, who revealed the extent of NSA’s massive program to collect and store records of nearly everyone’s phone calls, believes that Orwell’s book is “nothing compared to what we [the NSA] have available today.” Snowden is not alone in making this connection. Federal Judge Richard J.

Leon in Washington, DC also calls the NSA’s surveillance “almost Orwellian” and “significantly likely” to be unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, the list of critics grows. Companies like Google, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook have asked the president and Congress to curb the surveillance.

A special panel named by the White House, the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, has concluded that the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone records should end. Its report, "Liberty and Security in a Changing World," makes dozens of recommendations to limit NSA surveillance, increase judicial oversight, craft new requirements for transparency and update federal privacy laws.