Several weeks have passed since the world received Edward Snowden’s revelations of the massive scope of the U.S. government’s invasion of privacy by means of collecting and storing millions of persons’ emails and website visits, as well as information about their telephone calls. The public appears fairly equally divided about whether these revelations constitute a public service or a treasonous act. The U.S. government has revoked Snowden’s passport and seeks to prosecute him for theft of public property and violations of the Espionage Act, but at present he remains out of the government’s reach at the Moscow airport. To my knowledge, no demonstrations in the streets have occurred to express Americans’ outrage with the government’s actions in secretly scooping up, without a warrant or a showing of probable cause, vast quantities of information about them and their personal affairs.
The absence of a great outpouring of opposition amounts to a very bad sign. It indicates that few people regard the government’s actions as egregious or as portending great harm to the general public. I strongly believe that they are both, and unless many more Americans rouse themselves to oppose these invasions of privacy and to demand that they be terminated, the people will have stood by quietly while the state captured all the ground it needs to reduce them to utter subservience to their political masters.
We have now reached a condition in which state authorities know an immense amount about the personal lives of virtually everyone in the United States and many foreigners, as well. Do people suppose that this access to personal information will be used only for the pursuit of terrorists? Anyone who has looked even superficially into previous government information-collection programs knows better. State authorities will, at minimum, employ the communications data and other personal information now at their fingertips to pursue various sorts of criminals, especially persons suspected of tax evasion. Moreover, they will almost certainly use the information for partisan political purposes. These gratuitous extensions of the use of information they ought never to have collected in the first place—information that mocks the Fourth Amendment’s guarantees in the most serious way imaginable—will, however, almost certainly be only the beginnings of the state’s use of the new power it now holds over the general public.