So much could go wrong. It all boils down to each individual NSA employee and contractor who has access to the collected information, and recent reports place that number at 500,000. You don’t have to be an evil person to want to listen in on someone else’s phone calls or monitor their emails. Good people do that all the time. Which teenage boy who’s been jilted by a girl hasn’t driven by her house, hoping to see her in the front yard? If given the chance, might that boy listen in on her phone calls, if just to hear her voice?
I’m sure the NSA and its contractors have written policies designed to protect Americans’ privacy, but which adult hasn’t violated a little policy at work? We swipe a few post-it packets or boxes of staples. If we’re in the banking industry, some of us engage in insider trading. If we’re journalists, we change a quote just a bit to make the story read better. And if we work in government surveillance, when the boss isn’t looking, we listen in on our hated neighbor’s phone call, just to see what he says about the hedge that you’re having a dispute about.
In 2003, when the original reports of warrantless surveillance first came out, I was so upset about it that I started writing a thriller based on this kind of situation. In the novel, an NSA operative with access to vast surveillance data has an obsession with a young San Francisco woman. As the novel opens, he attempts to kill her and she gets away. The police don’t believe her, since she is a recovering alcoholic who has given them trouble in the past. Thus begins a breathless chase from house to house, across the country, and eventually, off the grid.
This novel is about more than just a chase, though. It’s about the danger of allowing certain people omniscient power in the name of fighting terrorism. It’s about the innocent victims. It’s about her relationship with a young man who has no idea the trouble he’s in for. It’s about love in a time of hiding. It’s about what America should be. It’s ripped from the headlines.
Some people believe that good people would never step over the line, and that all NSA employees are screened to be good. Well, I consider myself a good person, and I must confess that I once stepped over the line 20 years ago. It had been a mistake to get romantically involved with someone who lived upstairs from me. We were together for a couple months, but when I realized that Haley had been molested as a child and her behaviors around intimacy and relationships were chaotic and maddening, I broke up with her.
But when she started bringing other men home past my front door, I began losing control. I found myself rushing to the front curtains whenever she walked past my door, peering up at her 2nd-floor window in the evenings. A tortuous two weeks passed before I realized that the only solution was to sell my condo and move. I shudder to think what I might have done if I’d had access to her phone calls, emails, and location information.
As Edward Snowden says, I don’t want to live in a country in which every phone call can be monitored without oversight. The reason is that people step over the line. A machinery like this must be scrupulously monitored, and as it stands, there seems to be very little oversight at all. The FISA court is a rubber stamp. No citizen or organization has judicial standing to sue. There are no government reports outlining excesses. Everything is done in high secrecy. Truly, this is a time bomb waiting to explode.
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