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Watching Big Brother

There are no simple answers on security and freedom.

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Years ago, the government snooped on my phone calls. It happened in Soviet Russia, where, at 16, I already knew it was dangerous to have politically risky conversations on the telephone. Shortly after my parents sought permission to emigrate in 1979, we received accidental proof that Big Brother was listening. While on the phone with a friend, my mother suddenly heard mysterious clicks — followed by a playback of her own conversation. Moments later, a strange voice asked, "Are you recording?" and then the sound was cut off.

Given such experiences, the idea of the state monitoring private communications in my adopted country is unquestionably disturbing — but so is hyperbolic rhetoric about an American police state.

At this point, there is much we don't know about the telephone and internet data collection by the National Security Agency. What is being monitored and on what scale? Can the NSA eavesdrop without a warrant, or merely keep track of who's communicating with whom? Does the fact that the special courts overseeing foreign intelligence surveillance approve nearly all requests for wiretapping warrants mean that their oversight amounts to rubber-stamping — or that most requests are well-founded? Is it true the NSA programs have helped prevent major terror attacks, including a New York subway bombing in 2009?

In a Pew poll earlier this month, 56 percent of Americans approved of NSA tracking of phone calls while 41 percent disapproved; only 45 percent, however, agreed that the government should be able to "monitor everyone's email to prevent possible terrorism." When the question was posed in broader terms — "Which is more important, to investigate terrorist threats or not intrude on privacy?" — nearly two-thirds opted for the former.

It's easy to mock supporters of extensive national security programs as docile "sheeple," but the inescapable fact is that the terror threat is real. Nearly 3,000 people died on September 11, 2001. A successful attack on the New York subway could have caused devastating damage. The specter of biological or nuclear terrorism is not just science fiction.

Critics of the surveillance state often charge that our response is out of proportion to the threat, since we handle far deadlier perils without compromising our freedom or privacy. In a recent column making this argument on The Atlantic's website, Conor Friedersdorf cites fatalities from drunk driving, diabetes, guns, and food poisoning. But the analogy is deeply flawed.

Terrorism is very different from the unavoidable vicissitudes of life such as diseases and accidents. We have a degree of control over these dangers; while this control is obviously limited, it is not illusory. We can do many things to lower our risk of premature death from disease, drunk drivers, food poisoning, and firearms.

Catastrophic events that strike unpredictably and are completely outside our control are inherently more terrifying — especially when they kill on a mass scale. With terrorism, the impact is magnified by the knowledge that we are being deliberately targeted and that the perpetrators will likely seek new, more efficient ways to cause harm.

That is why, even if this fear is disproportionate to the actual death toll from terror attacks, dismissing it is not only condescending but wrong. Persuading people to treat terrorism as an acceptable everyday risk on a par with traffic accidents and food poisoning would require reengineering the human psyche.

Does this mean that we should simply trust the government not to misuse its power and its access to private information? Certainly not. While there is zero evidence that either the Bush or the Obama administration has used surveillance data improperly — for instance, against political opponents or critics — the potential for abuse exists despite legislative and judicial oversight.

We need federal legislation that provides strong penalties for any misuse of data obtained through national security programs. We also need more public accountability and public debate on these issues, which is why NSA leaker Edward Snowden, whatever his motives and morals, has performed a valuable service.

The libertarian critique provides an essential check on the surveillance state. But liberty cannot survive unless a free society can be defended. And, if libertarians downplay the threat posed by our enemies, they undercut their credibility in opposing the threat posed by the intrusive state.

Cathy Young is a columnist at The Boston Globe. She is the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.

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