Voters mad about NSA spying face battle

2013-08-13 13:02
Protesters rally outside the US Capitol against the NSA's recently detailed surveillance programmes in Washington, DC. (File, Getty Images/AFP)

Protesters rally outside the US Capitol against the NSA's recently detailed surveillance programmes in Washington, DC. (File, Getty Images/AFP)

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Washington — Americans are becoming increasingly concerned about government invasion of privacy while investigating terrorism, and some ordinary citizens are finding ways to push back. They are signing online petitions and threatening lawsuits. Some are pressing their providers to be upfront when data is shared with the government, which federal law allows as long as the person isn't being investigated under an active court order.

The question is whether these anti-surveillance voters will be successful in creating a broader populist movement. Many lawmakers have defended the NSA surveillance programme — a programme Congress itself reviewed and approved in secret.

And unlike the anti-war effort that rallied Democrats during President George W Bush's administration, and the tea party movement that galvanised conservatives in President Barack Obama's first term, government surveillance opponents tend to straddle party lines. The cause appeals to libertarian Republicans who don't like big government and progressive liberals who do but favour civil liberties. Together, these voters would have little in common otherwise.

Another complication is the potential of another terrorist attack. One spectacular act and public opinion could flip, much as it did after the 11 September 2001, terrorist attacks, back to favouring government surveillance. Politicians know this, with many of them opting to blast the Obama administration for not being more transparent but most opposing an end to broad surveillance powers.

"If in fact something happens, you're basically putting yourself in a position to look like you didn't do something when you should have. And that's got to be in the back of their head," said Ed Goeas, president of the Tarrance Group in Alexandria, Virginia, a Republican survey research and strategy company.

That leaves voter-activists with little to work with, even with national elections next year that expose one-third of the Senate and every member of the House of Representatives to the voters.

Constituents, lawmakers

"I don't believe it's going to be a driving issue" in the upcoming elections, Goeas added. "It's got to be the total picture" on national security that appeals to voters.

At issue is whether the government overstepped its bounds when it began collecting and searching the phone and Internet records of Americans to gather information on suspected terrorists overseas. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released late last month found that Americans are divided over whether they support the surveillance programmes revealed earlier this year, but most Americans — 57% — still say it's more important for the government to investigate terrorism than to put privacy first.

Like their constituents, lawmakers too are divided. Last month, a House proposal that essentially would have made the NSA phone collection programme illegal failed in a 217-205 vote that didn't fall along party lines. Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi were among the 217 who voted to spare the programme.

In the Senate, a small group of lawmakers — namely Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall and Republican Senator Rand Paul — is taking a stronger line in favour of civil liberties. But progress has been slow, with few co-sponsors joining their legislative proposals to limit NSA spying powers. Meanwhile, such influential senators as Democrat Dianne Feinstein have defended the programme and said Edward Snowden, who leaked details of the NSA programmes, is guilty of treason.

Doug Hattaway, a Washington-based Democratic strategist, said the reluctance by most lawmakers to take sides isn't surprising, considering that most Americans say they want both security and privacy.

"I don't see Democrats benefiting from joining forces with libertarians," he said. "If voters are looking for balance, I wouldn't hop on the bandwagon with Rand Paul."

Not taking it lying down

Another challenge for surveillance foes is that industry isn't exactly fighting back. Technology and phone companies often say they are prohibited from divulging details about government surveillance requests, but that's only partially true. Federal law prohibits alerting customers when they are surveillance subjects as long as a court order remains in effect. But not all gag orders last forever.

But that hasn't stopped some Americans from challenging the surveillance system.

Charlotte Scot, a 66-year-old artist from Old Lyme, Connecticut, is a liberal who doesn't take things lying down. She moved to Canada in protest when Bush was re-elected in 2004.

So when Scot heard that major telecommunications providers have been turning over data about Americans' phone calls to the government since 2006, Scot demanded that her own phone company tell her what, if anything, it had shared about her.

She soon received a non-response from an unnamed customer service representative informing her how to opt out of its marketing programme, which only made Scot angrier.

"Dear Anonymous," Scot fired back in an e-mail, "I have always opted out of all advertising e-mails. ... However, my question was not about advertising. It was about what information AT&T turns over to the federal government and NSA. I appreciate an answer to this question."

'People are like sheep'

AT&T eventually responded with a link to its privacy policy and a promise that, while it doesn't comment on matters of national security, "we do comply with the law".

When AT&T wouldn't tell Scot whether her information had ever been shared with the government, chances are that's because it didn't want to — not because it couldn't.

AT&T spokesperson Michael Balmoris declined to comment on Scot's case in particular or matters of national security. "We value our customers' privacy and work hard to protect it by ensuring compliance with the law in all respects," he said.

Meanwhile, Scot says she can't understand why other customers are not just as angry. She's now looking to switch providers, and has downloaded a mobile application called Seecyrpt that offers encrypted phone calls for $3 a month. But she knows it's unlikely that a majority of Americans will follow her lead.

"I'm just one of these people who gets riled about things," she said. "People are like sheep."

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