It’s easy to feel that Big Brother is watching you. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, then-President George W. Bush signed into a law a controversial wiretapping bill in 2001. The USA PATRIOT Act — an Orwellian acronym that stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism — gave the federal government broader powers to intercept the communications of potential threats to national security.
“The changes, effective today, will help counter a threat like no other our nation has ever faced,” Bush said after the passage of the law, appealing to Americans’ salient fear and hatred of terrorists. “We’ve seen the enemy, and the murder of thousands of innocent, unsuspecting people.”
Since the signing of the Patriot Act, countless civil liberties groups have criticized the act’s potential for invasion of citizens’ privacy. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Patriot Act, alleging that the law violates the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution.
And now, history repeats itself. The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act makes companies who share information about online threats with the government largely free from civil and criminal liability. CISPA recently died in the Senate, where Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), chair of the Commerce Committee and member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, came out in opposition to the bill, stating that the bill’s goals were important, but that CISPA did not provide adequate protections for individuals’ privacy. The bill did not reach the full Senate.
But the bill’s failure to be put up for a vote in the Senate makes the legislation no less scary. Harvey Anderson of Mozilla, a CISPA opponent, has said the legislation “creates a black hole” through which the government can pull in different types of data. Theoretically, private emails and even medical records could land in the hands of the government, according to the Economist. And Mark Jaycox of the Electronic Frontier Foundation has said, “Companies have new rights to monitor user actions and share data — including potentially sensitive user data — with the government without a warrant.”
Why is privacy so important? Think about how you live your life online. It’s likely you share personal, private information with the people you talk to online. Perhaps you emailed your friends about your recent use of illegal drugs or Facebook-messaged them about your father’s long battle with depression. Would you want Big Brother and the Thought Police to know those private details of your personal life? Would you want your Internet browsing history to land in the hands of Uncle Sam for him to use for any of his goals?
You might be thinking you aren’t a bad person or a terrorist and thus have nothing to hide on the Internet. But, as Reddit user pigfish commented in a thread about CISPA and privacy rights, “privacy is the notion that we don’t want to share everything with everyone.” Your personal information is best left only to the parties who were intended to receive it in the first place.
Of course, cybersecurity is and should be an important priority in an age where hackers can attack governments online. But monitoring citizens nearly indiscriminately is not the solution to keeping the country safe from online attacks — unless we’re living under the reign of Big Brother.