It’s surprising that the one issue in Washington that has the majority of both parties behind it is one that has Americans quite a bit uneasy just now — the revelation that the federal government has been secretly collecting data on cell phone users.
Verizon is the company whose catch phrase is, “Can you hear me now?” The question a lot of people have now is, who exactly is hearing you when you make a call?
According to those in the federal government — including our senior U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Moultrie — nobody is actually listening in. The federal government under the auspices of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act uses the “business records” provision of the act to collect metadata on phone calls, including the phone numbers involved and the lengths of those calls. And both President Barack Obama and lawmakers have been quick to note that Congress has been kept apprised of this use of the act, particularly the Senate and House Intelligence and Judiciary committees. Chambliss, in fact, is vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Supporters of the program say it has saved lives, apparently through use of the data to thwart terrorist attacks.
That had barely settled in when on Friday the Washington Post reported that the federal snooping wasn’t restricted to cell phones. It turns out Uncle Sam is also keenly interested in what Americans are doing on the Internet. According to the report, federal officials have been tapping into the central servers of companies including Google, Apple and Facebook, getting access to emails, photos and other files.
All of this, of course, started in earnest (as far as we know, at least) following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The deadly attacks on American soil presented an opening for the collection of this type of data from citizens who were reeling from the magnitude of the destruction. Plus, politicians know how to package a law, regardless of its contents. Who was going to challenge a law called the “Patriot Act” in the period after 9/11?
That the government needs to collect electronic data in an electronic age is no surprise, but what is surprising is the extent to which this has been going on. Obama and lawmakers say it’s nothing knew, that they’ve been in on it and that everyone should not worry. What they fail to grasp, however, is that we just learned about, and not everyone is comfortable with the idea. And if elected, appointed and hired officials in Washington are hurt and appalled that rank-and-file Americans have concerns that they would misuse the information they’re collecting, then they’ve had their collective heads stuck in the sand for a long time.
“Programs like this (cell phone data collection) have great utility, and on the other hand, the American people want to feel confident that their government isn’t watching them,” U.S. Sen. Mario Rubio, R-Fla., observed Thursday.
It’s a difficult time to feel a lot of confidence about Washington. We’re living in a time when the Internal Revenue Service has targeted groups because of their political speech and ideologies. It’s a time when the administration tells falsehoods and news organizations get information that contradicts them, federal agencies grab emails and phone records in chasing down the leaks and even accuses a reporter of being a co-conspirator. We wonder what will come out next.
On Friday, Reuters reported that federal criminal investigations will likely be launched to find the leaks on the cell phone and Internet record revelations. We can recall another administration that made extensive use of “plumbers” to stop information “leaks.” And quite frankly, that recollection is not comforting when it comes to the question of whether the government will misuse these authorities and powers that it has given itself. Confidence is earned, not legislated or extracted through the stroke of a pen on an executive order. Our federal government needs to start earning some.
Can you hear that now? Good.