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President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks to students, teachers, and guests at Mooresville Middle School in Mooresville, N.C., Thursday, June 6, 2013, during his Middle Class Jobs & Opportunity Tour. (Chuck Burton/AP)
President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks to students, teachers, and guests at Mooresville Middle School in Mooresville, N.C., Thursday, June 6, 2013, during his Middle Class Jobs & Opportunity Tour. (Chuck Burton/AP)

First Take

U.S. surveillance of law-abiding citizens is dangerous and wrong Add to ...

The scale of the U.S. government’s surveillance of private telephone calls and Internet usage is disturbing. People around the world, including those in Canada, who have no links to terrorism or any criminal activity at all are being subjected to what amounts to electronic surveillance inside their homes. It is an abuse of the American anti-terrorism legislation enacted in the wake of 9/11, and it should be stopped.

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Thanks to the reporting of two newspapers, the public now knows that American security and police agencies collect daily logs of the phones calls of Americans and monitor the Internet activity of foreigners abroad. They are looking for patterns that indicate that someone might be planning a terrorist attack, and they are doing it with the knowledge of Congress and the White House. The authority for this activity comes from the Patriot Act, the law enacted in the traumatic and painful aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

There have always been worries that the Patriot Act would lead to abuses of power. President Barack Obama was a vocal critic of the law and its potential and actual abuses before he came to power, famously saying in 2007 that those abuses created “a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide.” In the wake of the revelations about his government’s domestic and world-wide monitoring systems, President Obama is defending himself on the same false premise.

It has never been right for a state to monitor the private lives of its citizens, let alone those of foreign country, on the worry that they might commit a crime in the future. Anyone who believes that trading essential privacies for security in order to prevent a terror attack should remember that well-intentioned surveillance can easily become malicious surveillance. If the U.S. government is able to abuse the powers it granted itself in the Patriot Act, as critics now charge, what is to prevent it from going a step further and using the information gathered from electronic surveillance for political purposes?

That frightening thought goes to the heart of why democracies keep government’s surveillance tentacles out of the private lives of law-abiding people, and why it is so important that authorities at all levels not be allowed to monitor people’s communications without probable cause. It is also why the U.S. should immediately put an end to its misguided and dangerous policies.

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