The heinous act of terror at the Boston Marathon this year—and the subsequent capture of the culprits via footage from surveillance cameras and tourist photos at the event—have rekindled a national fascination with the watchful eye of law enforcement. A New York Times/CBS News poll found that seventy-eight percent of Americans were comfortable with public surveillance in the aftermath of the attacks, despite pushback from civil liberties groups. Critics of the so-called security state have a point about the extremes of government intelligence gathering; however, supporters cite numerous benefits to the expansion of surveillance technology.
The PATRIOT Act and Overreach Fears
The post-9/11 era is, in large part, defined by a greater fear of government intrusion in the private lives of Americans. While the PATRIOT Act is well into its second decade of life, it is the provisions renewed in 2011 that give the government the most strength to keep track of terrorism suspects. Congress renewed sections allowing government investigations to acquire “roving wiretap”–– court orders that focus on the person rather than the technology—meaning whatever telephone or computer that suspect is using is covered by the order, rather than just individual numbers. It also allows more liberty in the wiretapping of non-citizen suspects and seizing tangible evidence. Ideally, these provisions allow for an expansion of intelligence powers into the investigation of lone wolf operations. The ACLU reacted by decrying the “pernicious impact of the intrusive provisions at stake,” and calling for an end to the erosion of civil liberties.
Surveillance Did Not Prevent Boston Terror Attacks
The ACLU was not alone in this assessment. One argument in their favor is that the provisions of the PATRIOT Act seemed to leave the government doing little to nothing to prevent the Boston terror attacks. Despite the FBI interviewing the elder bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev at the request of the Russian government, there seemed to be no leads about the man or his younger brother coming into law enforcement shortly before the attacks. This does little to impugn the idea of expanded intelligence activities or the power of the PATRIOT Act to deprive individuals of their civil liberties. If the government was not using their expanded powers to further investigate an individual like Tsarnaev, for whom the act appears almost custom written, maybe the problem is not the overuse of intelligence powers to infringe on anyone’s rights. The “lone wolf provision” failed.
More Civil Liberties Violations, Less Crime?
Conversely, the idea of cameras patrolling all public places seems rightfully Orwellian and it did little to stop the attacks. Cases of civil liberties violations erupted almost immediately after the passing of the act, including unwarranted cell and location searches on private property. Cameras and bugs are only the tip of the iceberg in this discussion. Such widespread approval for more of the same could lead to more civil and criminal violations against individuals in the realm of privacy. Whether such violations would have result in any concrete improvement in national security operations is anyone’s guess. The inability to confirm concrete improvement in our law enforcement and intelligence operations, perhaps more than the proof of violations themselves, argue against such enthusiasm for new surveillance.