NSA surveillance: What's one more Big Brother?

In principle, the National Security Agency's vast data collection operation is troubling, but in the age of Google and Facebook, it feels like having just one more Big Brother in a growing family of Big Brothers.

In response to the revelation that the NSA is scooping up metadata on every call placed on Verizon, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit against chief members of the Obama administration's national security team. The ACLU's deputy legal director, Jameel Jaffer, said: "This dragnet program is surely one of the largest surveillance efforts ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens. It is the equivalent of requiring every American to file a daily report with the government of every location they visited, every person they talked to on the phone, the time of each call, and the length of every conversation."

Defenders of the NSA program counter that argument, saying very little of this raw data will ever be used and then only to trace calls from terror suspects involved in planning attacks on U.S. targets. In an LA Times op-ed column, Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested that everyone should relax. Far from being a renegade spy operation, the phone-monitoring program comes with plenty of judicial, congressional and presidential oversight, he claimed.

"Granted there is something inherently creepy about Uncle Sam scooping up so much information about us," Mr. Boot wrote. "But Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Citibank and other companies know at least as much about us, because they use very similar data-mining programs to track our online movements. They gather that information in order to sell us products, and no one seems to be overly alarmed. The NSA is gathering that information to keep us safe from terrorist attackers. Yet somehow its actions have become a 'scandal,' to use a term now loosely being tossed around."

Thanks to the technological revolution, today's Americans live in a very different world than did previous generations. Privacy is a quaint novelty of the past, and whenever we tap into a telephone or a computer it has become the equivalent of leaving our homes and entering the town square. If that is something we do not like, the concern goes far beyond the worry that the government may be watching. Everyone may be watching.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.

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