Big Brother Really Is Watching Us
By Rand Paul
June 17, 2013
Monitoring hundreds of millions of phone records is an extraordinary invasion of privacy.
When Americans expressed outrage last week over the seizure and surveillance of Verizon's client data by the National Security Agency, President Obama responded: "In the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother . . . but when you actually look at the details, I think we've struck the right balance."
How many records did the NSA seize from Verizon? Hundreds of millions. We are now learning about more potential mass data collections by the government from other communications and online companies. These are the "details," and few Americans consider this approach "balanced," though many rightly consider it Orwellian.
These activities violate the Fourth Amendment, which says warrants must be specific—"particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." And what is the government doing with these records? The president assures us that the government is simply monitoring the origin and length of phone calls, not eavesdropping on their contents. Is this administration seriously asking us to trust the same government that admittedly targets political dissidents through the Internal Revenue Service and journalists through the Justice Department?
No one objects to balancing security against liberty. No one objects to seeking warrants for targeted monitoring based on probable cause. We've always done this.
What is objectionable is a system in which government has unlimited and privileged access to the details of our private affairs, and citizens are simply supposed to trust that there won't be any abuse of power. This is an absurd expectation. Americans should trust the National Security Agency as much as they do the IRS and Justice Department.
Monitoring the records of as many as a billion phone calls, as some news reports have suggested, is no modest invasion of privacy. It is an extraordinary invasion of privacy. We fought a revolution over issues like generalized warrants, where soldiers would go from house to house, searching anything they liked. Our lives are now so digitized that the government going from computer to computer or phone to phone is the modern equivalent of the same type of tyranny that our Founders rebelled against.
I also believe that trolling through millions of phone records hampers the legitimate protection of our security. The government sifts through mountains of data yet still didn't notice, or did not notice enough, that one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects was traveling to Chechnya. Perhaps instead of treating every American as a potential terror suspect the government should concentrate on more targeted analysis.
To protect against the invasion of Americans' privacy, I have introduced the Fourth Amendment Restoration Act. I introduced similar Fourth Amendment protections in December and again just last month. Both measures would have prevented the data-mining we're now seeing, but both bills were rejected by the Senate. We will see if this time my colleagues will vote to support the Constitution that they all took an oath to uphold.
I am also looking into a class-action lawsuit to overturn the decisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that allowed for this to happen. I will take the fight all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. My office has already heard much enthusiasm for this action.
The administration has responded to the public uproar by simply claiming that it is allowed to have unlimited access to all Americans' private information. This response is a clear indication that the president views our Constitutional "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects" as null and void.
If this is the new normal in America, then Big Brother certainly is watching and it's not hyperbolic or extreme to say so. Nor is it unreasonable to fear which parts of the Constitution this government will next consider negotiable or negligible.
Mr. Paul, a Republican, is a senator from Kentucky.