Through the PRISM: How To Submit to Authorities When They’re Spying On You

“Privacy” has taken on new meaning in our generation. When the Fourth Amendment was penned, the government had to physically break down doors or at least creep up next to a window or something to gather information on private citizens. Now, we voluntarily share most of our lives on social media, and all the rest is zinging around through cyberspace.

For the most part, third parties do it for us – Google, Facebook, Verizon, our banks. When we use these services, we agree to give them our data and allow them to use it for certain limited purposes. But they have the data, and that represents a lot of power over all of us. It’s a good thing there are laws preventing them from misusing it.

The government could not resist the power. In the name of security, the United States government has been mining data from at least 9 major internet companies. The companies insist they only respond to targeted requests for information in accordance with federal law, and that the government never has direct access to their servers.

Cold comfort, that. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorizes pretty sweeping measures for international communications, the safety supposedly coming in the separation of law enforcement and intelligence. We assure ourselves that the seemingly omnipotent spymasters we see in movies are looking out from the border, not in. After 9/11, that’s naive at best.

Christians should strive to live in such a way that we have nothing to fear from our rulers, whether that means an elected Congress or an anointed king. Our approach to this news should not be to insist that we have a right to carry on wrongdoing privately, but rather that we insist our government abide by the law that constrains it.

This news is not distressing because we want to be able to watch all the weird pornography or troll comment threads on Facebook without others knowing about it. Newsflash: the only Person who matters already knows about that stuff. So just stop.

The provisions of the Constitution go to the American way of life. Our political system is predicated on the notion (whether it is true or a convenient fiction) that the people are sovereign and constitute the government according to their dictates. When We the People decided the delicate balance between safety and liberty, we said this:

“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.” (emphasis added)

The Fourth Amendment is a complex area of law, and I don’t mean to suggest the text resolves the question here. But just do a gut check and ask whether you think the authorities stayed within that in this case.

Just as we are not lawbreakers, so too do we insist on the integrity of the law. Our rulers are not free to act outside the power that constitutes them. Submitting to authorities does not mean allowing the authorities to become despotic; rendering unto Caesar does not mean allowing everything to become Caesar’s.

photo credit: Joffley via photopin cc

About S. L. Whitesell

Lee studies law at the University of Pennsylvania. He and his wife Joanna live in Philadelphia.

  • http://www.facebook.com/marykaye.waterson Mary Kaye Waterson

    This did not answer the question of the headline.

  • jcon526

    You make valid points.

    However, I feel odd about the collective outrage people have shown about this issue. One should have never assumed that our phone and online activities were completely private in the first place, seeing how we welcomed the power telecommunications services have brought into our homes.

    In regards to national security, there is an interesting dissonance in what we desire. On one hand, we want complete freedom and privacy to surf the web and communicate across the network, yet we want instant justice when a terrorist abuses that privilege to harm others. We’ve been ok with torture to extract information, as well as casual abuses of ethics for other people, or when it suits us … but when it’s us, we’re outraged.

    Just some thoughts.


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