Gary Johnson Trumps Obama and Romney Polices on the Issue of Electronic Surveillance


According to A Freedom Of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union there has been a drastic 64% increase in court orders for electronic federal surveillance by the Justice Department since 2009.  

Electronic surveillance is a tactic both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney support and one that libertarians, Ron Paul and former Governor Gary Johnson, are against on principle. If this issue is brought to the fore it could be exactly the type of wedge issue the libertarian candidate for president, Gary Johnson, could use as a clear demarcation between himself and Governor Romney and President Barack Obama. One that is especially useful, if he can get into the debates, because it would result in the latter two being forced to agree with one another on an issue that clearly affects deep-seated American values in “privacy” and “freedom.”

First, it is important to know exactly what types of surveillance were increased by 64%.    For phones, two types of surveillance were increased, those of “pen-registers” and “trap-and-trace devices.” Pen-registers determine the numbers dialed by a phone, while trap-and-trace devices determine the phone numbers calling a suspect's device. These two methods have gone up from 23,535 in 2009 to 37,616 in 2011. Tracing emails has increased from 360 in 2009 to 1,661 in 2011. All told, this is a 64% increase in electronic surveillance during the Obama administration.

It is important to point out that this surveillance does not track the actual conversations on the phone or email, but merely the phone numbers and email addresses involved. Court orders for surveillance are a lot easier to obtain than an actual warrant. While warrants require probable cause a crime has been committed, a court order merely requires that the information sought is relevant to the investigation. According to Catherine Crump of the ACLU this is merely a “rubber stamp” lacking any real court review.

The Libertarian Party’s view on such surveillance is pretty straightforward being that, “The government should not use electronic or other means of covert surveillance of an individual's actions or private property without the consent of the owner or occupant.” Whether or not the American public agrees is another story. There are no straightforward recent polls on what Americans think of electronic surveillance, and while there are some on the Patriot Act itself these increases in surveillance are not purely linked to the Patriot Act. Much of the new surveillance are on would be criminals not necessarily would be terrorists. Whatever the American public feels about this issue it is another chance for Johnson to make a forceful case for his inclusion in the debates: American’s liberties are being encroached upon and they should at least have a clear choice about it.