Have we lost sight of foundational American ideals?

In a series of editorials in this space 10 years ago this month, The Examiner explored the fragile nature of privacy and freedom following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Given what’s come to light in recent weeks regarding the extent to which U.S. intelligence agencies are gathering data on Americans and others, a couple of findings from that series stand out sharply. The first is that private companies – banks, phone companies, marketers – continue to pose at least as much of a threat to privacy as any government agency.

Most citizens – consumers, that is – freely turn over tremendous amounts of information to many of the companies with which they do business (not to mention the personal details ranging from the banal to the salacious that many feel compelled to post on Facebook and other social media). This trend has been growing for decades.

We all get those “your privacy and security are important to us” notes with the monthly bills from time to time, but the preponderance of evidence over time is that lapses are inevitable. Policies are written, no doubt with the best of intentions, but what confidence do we have that every reasonable step is always taken, that companies do not backslide and cut corners?

The telecommunications companies are in a tight spot. The National Security Agency wants phone records for millions of people, and the phone companies are legally obliged to comply – and not talk about it. The word “Orwellian” gets thrown around too casually, but here it fits. When this practice came to light a few years ago, there were screams of protest – but nothing changed. In recent weeks, the broad scope and permanent nature of that electronic trolling has been detailed, but the outrage was far more muted.

Have we become too used to these revelations? Have we become that cynical? Have we calculated that we can trade a little freedom for security? That brings us to the second point from our series 10 years ago. It’s philosophical, but it speaks to the state of the American soul. The Declaration of Independence itself states boldly that “all men are created equal” and are “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,” but we clearly have not believed the “all men” – all people – part for a long time.

America – a country based on a set of ideas rather than ethnicity or sect – was founded as an expression of the freedoms everyone is meant to enjoy, still a powerful and radical idea. But it’s safe to say the majority of Americans now go along with the notion of one set of freedoms for Americans and something else – something less – for everyone else. That’s sad. The world still largely looks at us a beacon of liberty, and a model. We should embrace that.

That attitude also makes it easier to tune out the snooping the NSA and other agencies are doing around the world. It seems that often the things we would cheer our government doing overseas would be denounced as grave abuses here at home. We cannot sustain that contradiction forever.

We should fear government power. We should be alarmed by the NSA’s reach, but it’s been doing what it does for decades. The details are secret, but the broad outlines have been clear for years. We should be alarmed by secret courts giving permission to intelligence agencies to mouseclick their way more and more deeply into our lives. But these things have become normal. Add to that the era of Big Data, the ability to harvest lots of information, connect lots of dots and draw detailed pictures about big trends, organizations, groups of people – and individuals. It’s great for marketing. For privacy and freedom, the implications are deeply troubling.