Leland Stanford once said that government is founded upon the doctrine of the consent of the governed and the principle that people are endowed with certain inalienable rights.
As American society has evolved from Stanford’s time to present day, our government has had to adapt to new threats both domestic and abroad. However, in the effort to combat new societal issues as a country, we have grown complacent and allowed the concept of “the consent of the governed” to shrink from public consciousness as our leadership allocates increasing amounts of resources to scrutinizing individuals at home and abroad. While national security is a legitimate concern, recent data demonstrates that current government surveillance programs are an excessive abuse of power.
According to a USAToday report released Wednesday, the government has been harvesting records of Americans’ phone calls for nearly a decade before the Sept. 11 attacks and the National Security Agency began its wider excessive collection of phone records. According to the report, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Justice Department had been collecting call records from the USA and as many as 116 other countries for up to two decades before 2001 without Americans’ knowledge.
This practice of large-scale, secret mass surveillance of citizens and foreigners alike is a deliberate, egregious abuse of power by American leadership for a multitude of reasons.
To start, widespread surveillance of citizens is an unconstitutional abuse of power because it infringes upon our 4th Amendment protections against undue search and seizure. In practice, many Americans do not mind having their phone activity monitored because they have nothing to lose from it. However, despite the liklihood that most people have nothing to lose from being monitored, surveillance programs like the NSA are an unconstitutional abuse of power because they subject innocent citizens to undue search of their personal communication and unjust seizure of their call records. American justice is founded on the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” and American mass surveillance programs stand in explicit violation of this doctrine by scrutinizing and searching innocent people at the same level as criminals.
Furthermore, the government has specifically violated the consent of the governed by operating these mass surveillance programs for decades without public knowledge. Even if the general public of 2015 willfully consent to these mass search practices, that would not justify our authority’s actions because they have been violating our rights for decades in deliberate secrecy. Mass surveillance of citizens is an unconstitutional abuse of authority as it is, but executing the search and seizure of private communication of citizens without their knowledge makes the offense only more deplorable.
Not only are these programs themselves an infringement on citizens’ rights, but they also open up the potential for abuse of these unconstitutional powers. The NSA does have a documented history of abuses by its employees, including a case where an employee used NSA surveillance technology to covertly intercept the calls of nine foreign women for six years without being detected by managers.
The amount of power the NSA exercises over citizens’ communication in the interest of “security” opens the potential for abuse and extreme invasion of citizens’ privacy. The possibility of malevolent use of NSA technology actually presents an equal if not greater risk to Americans’ safety than the “terrorism” these surveillance programs supposedly protect us against.
We cannot tolerate excessive federal surveillance as a populace because not only do they repress our 4th Amendment rights without our consent, but the potential for abuse of this unconstitutional overreach of authority threatens the public’s security beyond the tolerable.
Collegian Senior Columnist Sean Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @seanskenn.