In the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration, aided and abetted by a terrified Congress, passed the Patriot Act, which enabled certain government agencies — the National Security Administration, the CIA, and the U.S. Department of Justice, to name three — the right to survey and monitor communications such as the emails and phone calls of U.S. citizens for purposes of "national security."
It was and is a slippery slope to grant the government the ability to override our constitutional rights to privacy. Once the fox has gained entry to the hen house, he is unlikely to move out. The potential for mischief of a political nature — and for invasive activities even more nefarious — is a difficult temptation to overcome, as the Bush and Obama administrations have demonstrated.
The last two administrations have both targeted journalists for surveillance under the auspices of preventing terrorism. Under Bush, several prominent journalists' phone calls and emails were monitored. And we've recently learned that in April and May 2012, the Obama Justice Department monitored 20 phone lines being used by the Associated Press in an effort to determine where leaks about a CIA operation that foiled an al-Qaeda plane-bombing plot originated.
No one wants to endanger American lives by compromising national security, but no matter how justifiable such actions may seem, the slope remains slippery. And with the data-mining technology now available, there would appear to be no limits to how much the government can learn about us. And as more and more of us use the web for social media and personal and business interactions, the mountain of information grows. Credit card transactions, internet-browsing activity, emails, Facebook posts, tweets, banking deposits and withdrawals, cellphone use, etc. are all recorded and put into a computer-accessible information bank somewhere, just waiting for someone — a hacker or a business or a government agency — to tap into for one purpose or another.
Indeed, the very idea of a "right to privacy" seems to be growing increasingly quaint and outmoded. We now accept that if we buy an item on the internet, we can expect that, with the help of Google, retailers will start to track us online, trying to tempt us with products geared to our recent purchase. Facebook routinely puts ads in front us that are geared to our "likes." Micro-marketing to consumers has never been easier.
But the ease with which we are being targeted by retailers should serve as a constant reminder — a canary in the coal mine, if you will — that our constitutional right to privacy must be zealously protected. After all, it's one thing to have, say, Amazon tracking your literary and musical interests, quite another to have the government monitoring what books you read. Or who you just emailed.