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Mike Dingman: Americans need broad privacy protection in U.S. Constitution

Mike Dingman

"If you like your privacy, you can keep it, but in the meantime we're going to keep collecting your phone records, your emails, your text messages, and likely your credit card information."

This is how Sen. Rand Paul summed up the president's speech on Friday announcing NSA reforms.

In December, a White House task force report called for "sweeping reforms" to the National Security Agency's spying program. The president's speech on Friday outlined reforms that few could refer to as "sweeping" while managing to keep a straight face.

The NSA has come under fire lately for their spying program, in large parts thanks to leaks from exiled whistle-blower, Edward Snowden. Thanks to Mr. Snowden we know quite a bit about what the NSA collects and stores -- email messages, text messages, cell phone calls and their locations as well as other information - about American citizens.

Edward Snowden is now facing three federal felony charges for his actions and is living in Russia under a temporary act of asylum. The revelations raised by Snowden's leaks have rejuvenated the debate about privacy rights in the United States.

The right to privacy is one of the primary tenets of "freedom" in the minds of many Americans. However, few of them realize that the right to privacy is not specifically enumerated in the U.S. Constitution. There are allusions to privacy throughout the Bill of Rights; however, the Constitution never gives broad protections to privacy for Americans.

Being the second to last state admitted to the union, our founders had the advantage of 48 prior constitutions to consult while drafting ours. This advantage led to the Alaska Constitution being considered a "model constitution," with one of its highlights being that protected right to privacy the U.S. Constitution lacks.

The protection in Alaska's Constitution is discrete and clear "The right of the people to privacy is recognized and shall not be infringed. The legislature shall implement this section."

The criminal prosecution of Schaeffer Cox in 2011 clearly illustrated the difference in the strength of protection that the Alaska Constitution offers compared with the U.S. Constitution. Federal authorities raided and collected evidence under their protocols regarding privacy protection. In the state case all of the evidence was thrown out and charges were dismissed, while the evidence was not only allowed in the federal case, but was crucial in securing a conviction.

While you might feel that Cox was rightfully convicted, there may come a time when you appreciate the strong protections your privacy enjoys thanks to the Alaska Constitution.

However, if the agency that is coming after you is a federal agency, or one of the 40 states without a privacy clause in its constitution, you will not have that protection.

The damage that could come from the NSA spying program is far reaching. Imagine all of your phone calls, texts and emails being stored in a central location and what a government agency could do with that. Imagine if someday the federal government started sharing that data with states agencies, for a variety of different reasons.

Now imagine that a hacker -- or an insider like Snowden -- with less than noble intentions stole all of that data. While these scenarios may be far fetched, they are all possible.

The NSA spying program has exposed the problems that can occur due to the lack of a broad privacy protection in the U.S. Constitution. They can easily work their way around the few specific clauses that many people are misled to believe provides adequate privacy protection.

The time has come to protect the privacy of Americans.

After 9/11 most Americans were willing to sacrifice privacy for protection against similar attacks. Recent polling shows that Americans oppose the NSA spying program by a margin of 3 to 1.

Americans crave privacy protections.

The last two presidents, one Republican and one Democrat, have proven to us that neither political party is interested in protecting our privacy -- the protection has to be broad-ranging and out of their reach.

The United States should follow Alaska's lead and provide the privacy protections that we all deserve and draft a constitutional amendment, written very clearly and very simply "The right of the people to privacy is recognized and shall not be infringed."

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late '90s. Email, michaeldingman@gmail.com.


Mike Dingman
commentBy MIKE DINGMAN