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SPOTLIGHT
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Security vs. privacy

Published on -6/9/2013, 2:37 PM

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With the revelation of hundreds of millions of Americans having their phone calls, emails, video chats, text messages and online activity monitored on a regular basis by the federal government, outrage has erupted. Every bit of it justifiable, in our opinion.

We're not surprised telecommunication companies, large and small, have been complicit in the surveillance. They've had to, as non-cooperation wouldn't simply be looked at unfavorably -- it would be against the law.

And we remain a nation governed by our respect for law.

The American system is far superior than countries that maintain societal order relying on religion, birthright or brute force. But even laws have flaws. Changes in meaning, interpretation and enforcement all have the ability to disrupt that order, so we lean mightily on those entrusted to make the system work. Balancing competing interests requires sound judgment and intellect -- and trust of the American people.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there was an overwhelming push to ensure such acts never took place again. Our legal response was The USA PATRIOT Act, which allowed unprecedented powers to the government at the expense of personal liberties. We basically sacrificed the Fourth Amendment in exchange for safety. Suddenly, the feds had legal access not only to our telephones and computers, but records detailing our finances, travel, medical history, religious affiliations -- even our library activities. When MySpace and Facebook took off, we began filling out all kinds of data and personal items that became part and parcel of what the government might find interesting.

The notion of privacy was forever eroded -- or at least as long as the provisions of the PATRIOT Act kept being renewed. The last time was in 2011, when three key portions of the law were extended by Congress. The most critical, in our minds, was Section 215. This part of the law gives the government the authority to obtain "any tangible thing" it needs in a terrorism investigation. The feds do not, however, need to make any connection with the item in question to any particular terrorism suspect or possible terrorist activity. No probable cause needed, no warrant required, just blanket approval to get anything they want about anybody.

Almost as bad, from a civil liberty perspective, are the national security letters. These allow the government to get financial and communication records on any person even if they're not suspected of unlawful behavior. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of these letters have been issued over the past decade -- resulting in zero convictions.

President Barack Obama, who inherited the overzealous and overreaching security measures from his predecessor, has expanded upon them. And Congress, whether knowingly or not (the jury is still out on that one), has given the massive apparatus both the authority and funding to continue snooping on U.S. citizens. All in the name of protecting us from terrorists.

Officials have been flat-out denying the existence of many of the measures for years. Now that the cat's out of the bag, the president claims it is now time for the public to make some hard choices between security and privacy.

We long have said the PATRIOT Act is too broad and infringes upon our constitutional rights. The Fourth Amendment states: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

We would expect this hallmark of the American experience to be upheld. Continuing to sacrifice these rights because of the so-called War on Terror is an admission the terrorists won. Both Obama and President George W. Bush allowed Orwellian fantasies to become daily protocol in our numerous federal agencies. Every senator and representative who's voted either to create or extend the Big Brother tactics of the PATRIOT Act share in the responsibility.

We shouldn't need a debate to decide whether U.S. citizens should be allowed their privacy. That was settled more than 200 years ago and reaffirmed with the blood of our military every generation since.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net

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