By Gadeir Abbas
There was a time not long ago when the vast size of our world and the sheer number of people inhabiting it provided a degree of privacy protection against an intrusive government. No government could monitor everything that happened everywhere. So instead, governments had to pick and choose who to follow, what to listen to, and which information to collect. God might be omniscient, but we hoped our government never would be.
Unfortunately, we now know that there are places in the world in which the United States is omniscient. The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this week that the National Security Agency (NSA) was able to "collect, sort, and make available every Iraqi email, text message, and phone-location signal in real time."
Last month we learned from the Washington Post that, through an NSA program called MYSTIC, the agency is making a recording of all phone calls that occur in an entire undisclosed country. And the NSA has not been reluctant to extend its reach. Last year's intelligence budget provided the NSA the opportunity to extend its gaze to an additional five nations.
The NSA can now reduce to zeroes and ones the life of whole nations. The government no longer needs to pick and choose what information to collect. They can know it all. The privacy protections afforded by being just one person among many no longer apply.
And while the United States developed this monitoring capacity in secret, citizens must now decide for themselves whether their government should have it. One would hope that this question -- whether omniscience is an appropriate policy objective -- answers itself.
Just consider for a moment the recordings and intercepts the United States has now collected from half a dozen countries in the world -- calls to the doctor to discuss a complicated pregnancy, messages from a mother informing her children of their father's death, conversations between youngsters in love, pleas for help from those in dire financial straits -- the NSA would have a record of all these otherwise fleeting interactions stored away for as long as it likes.
It does not make one a terrorist sympathizer to find this objectionable. The NSA should not spy on foreign populations in ways that make our stomachs churn and tyrants green with envy. Foreigners are people like us and desire privacy as much as we do. This must count for something.
Though foreigners are subject to the NSA's omniscience today, Americans inside our borders will be tomorrow. If we cannot muster the empathy to respect the privacy of innocent foreigners, let's just be selfish. Government omniscience anywhere is the first step toward government omniscience everywhere.
The amount of information in the world there is to monitor no longer exceeds the United States' capacity to monitor it. And with this development, a pillar that once supported our right to privacy has crumbled.
Because we now have to answer the question of whether we want the United States to be omniscient, let us make clear that such attributes should be reserved for God alone.
Gadeir Abbas is a staff attorney at CAIR's national headquarters in Washington, D.C.