The Founding Fathers never figured on technology outdistancing protections for individual rights, but that is what the National Security Agency says is happening.
Terrorists are more cunning, so spies have to be even more cunning, finding secret backdoor entrances into major data platforms and sweeping across vast plains of data, much of it phone calls and emails from everyday Americans.
"The technology is moving very fast," says Joel Brenner, a former NSA general counsel. "Legislation moves very slowly. So in an era when the technology is moving quickly, it's really hard for policy to keep up."
Since the 9/11 attacks in New York City, the NSA has been told to listen when terrorists speak, whenever and wherever that may be, says Anne Neuberger, an NSA special assistant. Agents err on the side of security, as evidenced by the trail of disclosures — some by leaker Edward Snowden and some by the NSA itself. The latest release of documents by the NSA shows an agency routinely overlapping its sideboards intended to preserve individual privacy.
The NSA has apparently gone beyond data sweeps to data system penetration. The American Civil Liberties Union now employs a technologist who says NSA isn't interested in revealing the basement windows it has discovered to penetrate databases maintained by the Microsofts, Apples and Googles of the world.
This has raised the question whether there is a conflict between successful stealth eavesdropping and assisting major computer companies to defend against cyber attacks. The NSA says defense of computer systems trumps spy advantage, but some are still suspicious, especially since the U.S. Cyber Command and NSA have the same boss.
Few question the need to debate the security versus privacy question when it comes to domestic spying via metadata mining. But with the speed of technological advances, there is rising fear that protections of individual liberties are in a losing race.
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been at the forefront of identifying the problem and even some of the culprits. Now we have to see whether Wyden and others can find a way for liberty to keep pace with technology and the spies who use it.