We Asked, You Answered: Surveillance and Privacy

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Demonstrators march through Washington, DC, towards the National Mall to rally and demand that Congress investigate the National Security Agency's mass surveillance programs on Oct. 26, 2013. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

On our show last week, Bill spoke with Heidi Boghosian about illicit surveillance tactics being used by the government and corporate America to spy on all of us — not just suspected terrorists. We asked: Just how comfortable are you with the constant invasion of your privacy? Is it ever justified by the greater need of the public?

We received hundreds of comments on our website, Facebook and via email. Most people were against the use of surveillance by the US government and many see corporations as collecting way too much information on consumers. Others thought some spying by the government was needed to protect us against terrorist attacks. Here’s a summary of what you wrote.

Beat it, Big Brother

Many people thought George Orwell would be horrified by the actions of Big Brother in America today. They saw the use of surveillance by the US government as overreaching and in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable government intrusion.

Joe Lendvai wrote: “It is never okay to make this undemocratic intrusion into our privacy acceptable, reasonable or right. Simply put, the Patriot Act is unpatriotic and should be repealed.”

A viewer named Viejito compared the NSA to the KGB adding: “I remember seeing Dick Cheney say on TV that since 9/11 the game had changed and he seemed to imply that we, too, now had to become a police state. It looks as if we are well on our way.”

Marina Antropow Cramer, like several others who wrote in, believes government surveillance is a waste of resources. “If we aspire to be a democracy, with personal freedoms guaranteed to citizens in the Constitution, then there is no justification for this egregious invasion. It is also a colossal waste of public funds. And it has also proved to be grossly ineffective.”

Get a Warrant

Some people said government surveillance may be needed to protect us from terrorist, but warrants should be mandatory.

As Stephen Stroud put it: “Government spying is never justified except on individuals who constitute an immediate threat of participating in actual terrorists acts … No spying on any US citizen should be permitted without a warrant being issued by a federal judge on the basis of actual evidence of planning or participation in actual terrorist activities.”

Remember 9/11?

A number of viewers said that given the dangers of the world we live in, surveillance is required.
Carol Radsprecher wrote: “I saw the twin towers fall and I don’t want anything like that to ever happen again.”

Mary Green said surveillance is justified because it helps track down terrorists and criminals. “Without [surveillance] we would still be looking for the Boston bombers, bin Laden and a whole slew of others. Also on a local level, we have been able to track kidnappers, robbers and numerous others who would harm innocent people.”

Richard Pawlowski wrote: “Surrounding us are many people who would like to harm ANY American. It isn’t our government who wants to harm us but people who think they can just do anything they want with our secrets and collective security. People who do so should be considered traitors … [Boghosian] makes some good points but goes off the deep-end when she makes a hero out of the traitor Edward Snowden. Bottom line — we need MORE security not less — and we need more ways to prevent traitors from selling our future to terrorists.”

Others disagreed with Pawlowski and believe that Snowden is a hero for revealing America’s spying tactics. Charlotte Glauser wrote: “Snowden should be released from any indictment or possible litigation NOW. We truly need to hear his story and there is no way he can tell it when he is trapped in Russia. It is the peak of irony that he is seeking refuge in one of the most repressive governments on earth.”

Big Business

Others, while concerned about government eavesdropping, were equally, if not more disturbed, by corporations collecting data and marketing information on Americans.

Tom Mengel wrote: “There have definitely been overreaches but some monitoring is needed. I am much more concerned with large companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook collecting and selling huge amounts of personal data without any real limits and controls.”

Fritz Korte is disturbed by the tracking of our sales. “Why does no one seem upset by the same thing happening in the private sector where you are measured so precisely that a marketer can tell to the minute when you will be buying your next can of a particular brand of soup?”

And L. Rivet wrote that social networks are not protecting young people enough when it comes to sharing personal data. “I have been concerned and disgusted with the ever-increasing intrusion into the privacy of individuals by governments and corporations for thinly-veiled “security” reasons. Social networks are brainwashing our youth into thinking that it is okay to lay out their vital information for all to see while they haven’t the maturity to discern the possible consequences of doing just that.”

A Can of Worms

Some viewers said the collection of data might not bother us now, but that could change. Playitfair wrote: “All this spying and selling of our private information for cash may seem innocuous today, but what of future uses and future government controls? … What if some future administration took things a step further and started to arrest protesters and writers opposed to their actions? It could happen. Group think and totalitarian regimes are the unfortunate legacy of history.”

A good portion of people were apathetic, saying they have no problem with surveillance, but warned that eavesdroppers might be exceedingly bored listening in on their daily lives. We got plenty of messages similar to this one by Lucille York: “I don’t care. I’m really not that interesting but if they need information on me I say go for it!”

Have a comment on surveillance or anything else you read here? Share your views below. 

Karin Kamp is a multimedia journalist and producer. She has produced content for BillMoyers.com, NOW on PBS and WNYC public radio and worked as a reporter for Swiss Radio International. She also helped launch The Story Exchange, a site dedicated to women's entrepreneurship.
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