Hyper-Regulated Mass Surveillance

The difficult project of establishing meaningful oversight would be aided by a deeper appreciation by all sides of the surveillance debates that their adversaries are generally acting in good faith. Too often it seems that we occupy parallel universes. In the first, the U.S. intelligence community operates in a framework so regulated and constrained that it should be the envy of the world, not the target of its scorn. No intelligence agency in the world can match our respect for rules and laws. In the second, the U.S. surveillance state has outgrown legal restraints and allowed its surveillance activities to be driven by technological capabilities. It developed and deployed a global system of mass surveillance without the knowledge or consent of the public, and it is sitting on massive databases of private information that constitute a genuine threat to free societies.

We should acknowledge the possibility that both of these pictures are largely accurate. The intelligence community is staffed by honorable public servants who have an abiding respect for the Constitution. And history gives us reason to be concerned that information collected for one purpose will likely be put to other purposes, particularly in the aftermath of a terrorist attack or other national trauma. We might even elect a president who has no regard for the rule of law.

Ben Wizner, ACLU

The question of how to draft a system of secret rules while simultaneously ensuring that the actors solely operate within the realm of the rules continues to vex policymakers, academics, politicians, and lawyers. What definitely seems to not work is maintaining a veil of secrecy over the baseline set of rules themselves, to say nothing of cloaking the interpretations of those rules in their own layers of secrecy.

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