Edward Snowden’s continuing efforts to elude U.S. efforts to criminalize leaks confirming we live in a 1984-like surveillance state should be stirring more debate on whether Americans have unknowingly given up their Fourth Amendment right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
He may well have violated the law but, in doing so, he revealed that our government assumes it can invade our privacy in pursuit of terrorism without any individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. That it does so with the oversight of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court does not inspire confidence.
In a dissent 85 years ago, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called the Fourth Amendment the U.S. Constitution’s “right to be left alone.” Over the past 30 years, that principle has been whittled down by laws permitting DUI sobriety checkpoints and various efforts to prosecute a war on drugs, but being left alone is a bedrock American value apparently now in need of a vigorous defense.
The reason we have a Fourth Amendment is to prevent the government from using its vast powers to act as a dragnet, catching all up in its crime-fighting zeal. The founders of this country determined it was essential to a free people to have the government’s reasonable suspicion of illegality placed before an independent magistrate who could deny a search warrant without sufficient probable cause.
No one elected the national security state that appears to trump at will this fundamental right. Snowden’s actions remind us that we may have not just abandoned notions of personal privacy in advancing the state’s interests in an ephemeral security but perhaps any meaningful idea of freedom as well. The full scope of Snowden’s disclosures — and their impact — hasn’t been determined yet, and probably won’t be for years. But if he has opened our eyes, and we act on what we see, he will have done a great public service.