If You Don't Allow Government Cameras in Your Home, Will Terrorists Win?

Reader's analogy raises question of how far we can bend Constitution before it breaks.

Traffic cameras are trained on yellow lights over K Street in downtown Washington D.C.  (National Journal)

Would you let the government install a camera in your home?

The question was posed to me by Mike Cregan, a reader from Santa Barbara, Calif., who owns a foreign trade business. He writes: "When people say, `Well, they don't get into the calls, etc. unless they have a court order,' they miss the larger point."

Cregan then offers an analogy that cuts through public ambivalence about the National Security Agency's massive spying dragnet.

"It is like the government saying, `We are going to put a camera in everyone's home.  But, don't worry, we aren't going to turn it on unless a court gives us the OK.'"

Don't worry. That is the central defense of President Obama and the NSA: We will blanket your telephone and Internet activity with an electronic net, but we won't listen or otherwise pry without court permission. A secret court, issuing secret rulings. Trust us.

Cregan continues:

"No, I don't want a camera in my house in the first place.  And, I don't want my Internet or phone records in the government's possession in the first place.  The potential for abuse FAR outweighs the benefit.  The abuse that could be done, in the wrong hands, is absolutely huge."

Americans should consider such logic before agreeing to further abuses of their civil liberties.  The United States must exploit the flexibility of its Constitution to adapt to 21st century threats, but Cregan's email is a fresh reminder of the threshold question: How far do we stretch the Constitution before it breaks?

The public's ambivalence is summed up nicely in the final paragraph of a New York Times story today, "N.S.A. Chief Says Phone Record Logs Halted Terror Threats." The paragraph reads:

"Public opinion, judging by two polls with differently worded questions that yielded different results, is divided over the government's tracking of the communications of Americans. In a Pew Research Center/Washington Post poll conducted June 6-9, 56 percent of Americans said the N.S.A's program tracking the phone records of "millions of Americans" was an acceptable way to investigate terrorism, while 41 percent said it was unacceptable. But a CBS News poll conducted June 9-10, which instead asked about collecting phone records of "ordinary Americans," found that just 38 percent supported it and 58 percent opposed it."

And there you have it. Americans are fine with invading the privacy of people in the abstract "“ "millions of Americans" vaguely targets all the evil doers.

But when the question is asked in a way that personalizes NSA's targets ("ordinary Americans") it hits, well, closer to home.