Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Does it Matter if You Spy on Foreigners?

Over the holidays, I mentioned my post about Congress ignoring individual privacy in an email discussion group and was asked whether the telecoms now requesting amnesty permitted surveillance of domestic-domestic calls. As an initial matter, the answer is yes. Paragraph 158 of the consolidated complaint the telecoms allowed the NSA to build a database which included Americans' domestic calls. Paragraph 176 of the complaint explicitly alleges that "Defendants have knowingly authorized, and continue to knowingly authorize, NSA and affiliated governmental agencies to directly access through the installed devices all domestic, international, and foreign wireline and wireless telephone and electronic communications transmitted through Defendants’ domestic telecommunications infrastructure and facilities for use in the program." Given that the current lawsuits against the telecoms are on a motion to dismiss, the allegations in the complaint have to be taken as true, so (at least at this point) it as to be accepted that the telecoms allowed surveillance of domestic-domestic calls.
However, there's something a bit troubling about the idea that amnesty should be granted if the Americans who were being spied on were communicating with foreign nationals. To my mind, Americans should be able to assume that their communications are not being monitored (without protections required by law such as a court order or a warrant) even if they are talking to someone who is overseas. An incursion on privacy when speaking with someone overseas is simply that: an incursion on privacy. This should not only be a concern based on a general regard for privacy, but also because it damages the United States' standing internationally (see, e.g., the 2007 International Privacy Rankings (discussed here) which placed the United States last among countries in the democratic world). The attitude that we can (and should) nonchalantly subdivide our privacy is one which leads to a country where individual privacy is reduced to slivers so small that the significance of privacy is completely lost.

And on that cheerful note: HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

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