“In the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, then I think we’ve struck the right balance.” That’s how President Obama described the recent revelation that the National Security Agency has been collecting the cell phone and internet records of millions of American citizens in a massive terrorist investigation.
What’s so disturbing about this news is that it runs counter to the intentions of our fourth amendment and what our founding fathers wanted. The fourth amendment reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
It was a direct response to British Writs of Assistance, which were basically general warrants that granted law enforcement official general and broad search powers to come into a person’s. Essentially an officer who was given such a warrant was allowed to “search virtually any home they liked, at any time they liked, for any reason they liked or for no reason at all.” Clearly our founders didn’t approve of that type of unlimited power then and they wouldn’t approve of it now.
Now perhaps things have changed and new laws and new rules are needed to deal with the digital world smart phones, email and social media. Fine, let’s amend the Constitution. But let’s not pass laws in the aftermath of national tragedies, laws with broad and vague sections that empower single offices or officials with sweeping powers.
The right “balance” should always tilt in the direction of American fourth amendment rights.