The Verizongate flap officially faded with a whimper today, as President Obama stood before the American people and explained what the program does.
The president said, “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this program is about. As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at the numbers and durations of calls. They’re not looking at names and they’re not looking at content, but sifting through this so-called meta data, they may identify potential leads with respect to people that might engage in terrorism.”
This really is a poor excuse for a scandal. It turns out the government is collecting as much metadata on you as your bank, employer, ISP, and search engine already do. This data collection is distasteful whether it is done in the private or public sector, but the fact of the matter is that somebody is watching and keeping tabs on almost everything that we do.
In the case of the federal government, the national security argument is tough hurdle for privacy advocates to overcome. Those who are concerned about privacy have not been able to put a dent in the Patriot Act, because most Americans decided to trade some liberty for security after 9/11.
From a pragmatically political point of view, President Obama had to embrace these programs to some degree. Imagine if the president would have rolled back everything to pre-9/11 status. What would have happened if another terrorist attack did occur? What if it was revealed later that these surveillance programs could have saved lives? Candidates often talk a different talk about privacy before they are elected. After they take office, the responsibilities are completely different.
This is not an excuse for Democrats and Republicans who have irresponsibly passed and renewed the vague and open ended Patriot Act. Some surveillance may be necessary, but the Patriot Act is too broad and leaves too much opportunity for abuse. The brief hysteria over Verizongate was overblown, but the serious question of how we balance the competing needs for both security and privacy shouldn’t be ignored any longer.
Obama isn’t Bush. He wasn’t listening in on your phone calls. Privacy advocates who fail to see the difference between the two situations are doing a disservice to their cause.