Think Twice Before You Dial

Next time you dial a telephone number, bear in mind that Big Brother, also known as the Obama administration, is watching.

Thanks to NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden, who — depending on who you ask — is either a courageous whistleblower or cowardly traitor, we now know that the U.S. government collects the phone records of millions of Americans every day and stores them in a digital library.

My initial reaction to this news was one of nonchalance. After all, I don’t have anything to hide. I might be calling some people too often, and others too rarely, but I’m proud of the people I associate with. Even if my actual phone calls were recorded — according to President Obama, they aren’t — I can’t imagine that any parts of those conversations would be of interest to anti-terror investigators.

Then I reconsidered.

For one thing, while I am enormously grateful to reside in a medinah shel chessed, where my right to practice my religion is protected by the Constitution, as a member of a nation that has been persecuted for thousands of years, I am wary of the notion of governmental intrusion in our private lives. Right now, it is supposedly only being used to track genuine terror threats but what protection is there in place to ensure that it won’t be misused?

As these words are being written, the trial against intelligence analyst Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is continuing for releasing hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the Manning and Snowden cases prove, it is all too easy for a disgruntled — or idealistic — low-level employee to wreak utter havoc in America’s intelligence system.

What will prevent some employee with an axe to grind from publishing online the phone records of a long list of famous and lesser known Americans?  It can also theoretically be very easily used for blackmail purposes. For instance, publishing a list of incoming calls to an alcohol rehab center could prove to be very uncomfortable to some people.

Our community is blessed with a number of noted organizations and individual askanim known for giving confidential medical referrals. They would be horrified to discover that their incoming and outgoing calls — including those seeking referrals as well as private cellphones of top doctors is made public.

Some may seek to counter this argument by stating that since the phone companies have these records anyway, the same risk exists that an employee of Verizon would seek to publicize these records. But in reality, the history has shown that employees of private companies are highly unlikely to seek to ruin the lives of individual customers. Somehow, those who work for the government seem to share no such compunctions.

Furthermore, even within the parameters of legitimate government actions, there is ample reason to express concern.

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” is a trite expression, but an important one to keep in mind.

The Contra rebels in Nicaragua are a classic example. President Ronald Reagan saw them as heroes fighting for democracy against the communist Sandinistas government. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill saw then as terrorists who were committing horrible atrocities against their countrymen. As long as the basic rights of Americans are protected, supporters of either side in overseas battle were able to sleep peacefully. But in an age when our calling patterns are being monitored, and in case of foreigners, emails being read, any shift in U.S. foreign policy could mean turning a patriotic American into a suspected supporter of terrorism. Under a Republican administration someone who advocated on behalf of a group like the Contras would be considered a model citizen. Under a Democratic administration the same fellow would suddenly become a supporter of terrorism.

If a persuasive argument can be made that this program would really be crucial to our national security, and that all necessary steps are being taken to ensure that the material is never used inappropriately and doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, I think that most of us would make peace with it.

But so far there is little indication that this is the case.