Editorial: Congress needs a closer eye on spy programs
Our capacity for domestic surveillance is growing faster than our ability to make sense of it.
Over the past months, we have learned the National Security Agency’s domestic spying project built a database that basically included every phone call in America. During hearings this week, NSA officials acknowledged the possibility that they could build similar databases of people’s credit card transactions, hotel records and Internet searches.
On another front, the growing network of police and traffic cameras is capturing and storing the movement of our vehicles in unprecedented new ways, whether we have done anything wrong or not, according to a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Add to that the information we give away freely with our Internet activity, social networks and the GPS information from our smartphones, and privacy is certainly not what it used to be.
We recognize that most of these government efforts begin with good intentions, especially those designed to keep us safe and root out terrorists and criminals. But what is alarming about all of these trends is that the public does not get the full picture of what is going on until long after the tracking has begun.
That is why it is so important that our representatives in Congress take care in approving these programs and remain vigilant in monitoring the results. In some cases, that is simply not happening.
Although the Obama administration assured the public that Congress was well aware of the NSA program, lawmakers from both parties made it clear in hearings this week that they were not aware of the scope of the program.
One of the sponsors of the Patriot Act, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said Wednesday that Congress meant only to include information directly relevant to national security investigations. He did not expect the government to store every phone record in a huge database to search later.
Generally, the public is skeptical as well. A Gallup poll done in June shows only 37 percent of Americans approve of the NSA phone record program, although only about 35 percent of respondents were “very concerned” about the database being used to violate their own privacy.
We feel that shows that most Americans are still trusting that domestic surveillance will be used for the right purposes, but they want a voice in how it is expanded and at what cost to their own civil liberties.
Congress cannot lose sight of that, especially as it considers whether to renew the NSA surveillance authority in 2015.
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