April 25, 2012

Obama’s double standard on privacy, citizen security, and surveillance

By: Diana Lopez

On Monday, President Obama announced that the U.S. will allow sanctions on foreign nationals using technology to commit human rights abuses. Obama gave the speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The speech was primarily about efforts that the Obama administration will take to prevent atrocities like the Holocaust in the future. But a closer examination reveals a contradiction.

Under the Obama administration, the federal government has taken steps to severely limit the power that citizens have to protect themselves against government abuse. And the federal government has done this through the use of technology, like GPS surveillance and unmanned aerial drones.

The president took the stand after an introduction by professor and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel on the horrors of genocide and wrapped his speech around the theme of ‘never again.’” The point of the speech was to outline government prevention of mass killings.

Obama’s focus on technology was alarming:

I’ve signed an executive order that authorizes new sanctions against the Syrian government and Iran and those that abet them for using technologies to monitor and track and target citizens for violence […] these technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them.

What about here in the United States? The Department of Justice argued before the Supreme Court in U.S. v Jones that citizens cannot expect privacy in their location and, for that reason, that GPS surveillance does not constitute a search.

In Jones, police snuck a GPS tracking device under the vehicle of a suspected drug dealer to obtain evidence against that individual. The Department of Justice argued for warrantless GPS surveillance, but the Supreme Court disagreed in January 2012, citing Fourth Amendment protections to citizens’ reasonable expectation of privacy.

The Supreme Court decision stated that installation of the GPS device constituted a search, and thus required a warrant. It didn’t matter what device was used. And tracking him for a long period of time (in this case 28 days) was a search, again, regardless of the technology involved.

This argument goes completely against the spirit of citizen security expressed by President Obama in his Holocaust remembrance speech. If it is important for technology to be used to empower, and not oppress, citizens, then it is important for his Department of Justice to respect the Constitutional sphere of citizen privacy. The argument that monitoring and tracking citizens is not a search severely undermines citizen security. It suggests there is no due process by which the government can remove Fourth Amendment protections.

To be fair, the warrantless use of surveillance devices to track citizens is not the same thing as tracking and targeting them for violence. Then again, the Obama administration has done that too. A secret White House panel, a subset of the White House Security Council, targeted American citizen and Muslim cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki.

In September 30, 2011, Awlaki was killed by a CIA-led drone strike. Two weeks later his son was killed also by a drone strike. The administration claims that it has evidence of Awlaki’s terrorist activities but it won’t release this evidence, which has been described as “patchy.”

No explanation has been publicly disclosed as to the threat of these two American citizens posed and why their assassination was warranted. The world is left only with assertions from the White House that these killings were justified.

Obama’s speech argued that invading individuals’ privacy to target them for violence is a threat to freedom. He’s right. But if tracking and targeting individuals for the purpose of bringing violence to them is a threat to freedom for citizens of other countries, it is certainly a threat to freedom in the United States.

If security and privacy are important ideals and governments should be sanctioned for using technology to limit the freedoms of its citizens, then the administration should reflect these ideals. A respect for privacy and security must first come from the White House before the president attempts to export these ideals abroad.

Diana Lopez is a senior fellow with the Sunshine Review. She is also a senior fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum.