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Words from Winterbilt

Who says the government doesn’t listen to us?

Shannon Bohrer

(8/2013) When the story of the PRISM program was first leaked, it was all over the news. PRISM is the clandestine electronic surveillance program run by the NSA. I do find it amusing that the recent revelations are neither new nor recent. Apparently, the news media forgot about the USA Patriot Act. So the government does listen to us– but not in the way we would like.

The leak of the PRISM program consumed the media and, as I stated, it should not have been a surprise. The USA PATRIOT Act (which stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001), was a response to the attacks on September 11, 2001. However, while the USA PATRIOT Act was a response to terrorism, parts of it were questioned almost from its inception. The initial questions were about indefinite detentions of immigrants, searches of private property without warrants and without owner notifications, and the expanded use of National Security Letters which allowed the FBI to search telephone, email and financial records without a court order. Since the initial passage, there have been legal challenges and the courts have ruled some provisions as unconstitutional.

The PRISM program is an outgrowth of the latest version of the USA PATRIOT Act. Unlike provisions in the 2001 act, PRISM does include oversight so we know that someone is watching out for our interest. The oversight requires the federal agency to obtain a warrant from a FISA court. FISA is an acronym for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. When the warrant is signed, the federal agency can access the records sought. To add another layer of oversight, members of congress are briefed about the process. Of course there have been concerns about this oversight process. No one other than the federal agency requesting the warrant and the judge signing it knows that it exists. Nor does anyone know that the affiant— the one swearing to the facts— is presenting all the facts. The judge can’t tell anyone and the whole process is secret. Even when members of congress are briefed, they are sworn to secrecy. So the word "oversight" sounds good, but since everything is secret, can we really know?

After the leak, the government quickly informed us that the surveillance program has produced positive results. Accordingly, there have been a number of terrorist attacks that have been prevented and we are safer because of the program. Of course since the program is secret, they can’t give us the details. For some strange reason, this reminds me of the enhanced interrogation techniques. We were told they worked, but they can’t tell us about it— because it’s "secret."

We have a program with a catchy name (PRSIM) that is supposed to make us safer. The government has told us that the program works, but they cannot give us the details. However, even if the program produced results how efficient is it? PRISIM sounds like someone burning down a hay stack to find a needle. If somewhere in Frederick County a crime might occur, how effective would it be for the police to collect the electronic communications records of everyone that lives in Frederick County? Also, does it really take 1.4 million people with top secret security clearances to find evildoers? And if it does, why do so many have to be contractors, like Mr. Snowden, costing taxpayers $200,000 per year? Does anyone think the government might address these questions?

Interestingly, along with the news of PRISIM there was a resurgence of an old book 1984, which was first published in 1949 and written by George Orwell. According to the book, in the year 1984 the government spies on everyone through the televisions in their living rooms. How quaint. If the government wants to spy on us they don’t need our televisions. They can trace our credit cards, the internet, cell phones, tablets, Facebook pages, and tweets, all of which are already followed closely by private industry. Private industry, specifically advertising, knows where we live, our ages, what we buy, what we eat and to where we travel. Even satellite television is controlled by advertising. If you live in Frederick County and pay for satellite television, you cannot receive the Baltimore channels— instead you receive the D.C. channels, along with the D.C. area, because of the advertising market. It is the advertising market that knows everything about us— and sometimes they influence the laws.

In the interest of efficiency, maybe the government could scrap PRISIM and just contract with private industry for the information they need. The government could request information on anyone just entering the country that purchases a pressure cooker. The government could request information on any non-farmers buying bulk fertilizer. While our government is prohibited from keeping records on who purchases firearms, private industry is not. The government could add any criteria they deemed necessary, they in turn would not be collecting the data, but they could purchase it from private industry.

This is rather strange when you think about it. For a long time we have been hearing that government is too large and that it should be reduced— and yet we have 1.4 million people, with top secret security clearances. Half our population thinks the government should collect this information and half say it is an invasion of privacy. Our normal divided perspectives! Our Constitution protects us from government intrusion in our lives, at least it is supposed to. But nothing protects us from the intrusion of private industry.

Considering the initial press coverage, you would think this was a very important topic, however other than the location of Mr. Snowden (the "leaker") it is no longer in the press. Coincidentally, this lack of press coverage was replaced with the Zimmerman trial! I wonder if the Zimmerman trial produced more viewers for the advertising markets.

Read other articles by Shannon Bohrer