Privacy and Surveillance

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations is deeply concerned about the increasing intrusion upon freedom, privacy, and the constitutional rights of Americans. Under the umbrella of "national security," at least 20 federal agencies engage in surveillance. Chief among them is the FBI, with some two thousand agents investigating political activities. Computerized dossiers are maintained on millions of unsuspecting persons in this country.

In addition, recent Senate testimony revealed that the Pentagon has dossiers on 25 million Americans in which, on an average day, twelve thousand requests are processed in their data bank. There is also evidence that during the 1967-68 period, high officials of the government initiated Army surveillance of legitimate civilian political activity. Certainly our democratic principles are in danger when the military acts as a watchdog over civilians.

Employing wiretap techniques, the government may well have overstepped its constitutional power to stop foreign espionage by recording the conversations of domestic political dissenters; the late Martin Luther King was one such victim. The contention of the Justice Department that it can tap the telephones of any citizen whose activities it considers a threat to national security without court authorization is dangerous and increases fear among the public.

Through excessive surveillance, many government agencies implicitly endanger individuals who lawfully use their freedoms of speech, conscience, press, and assembly. The threat creates fear. Fear chills political dissent. And the chilling of dissent cracks the foundation of a democratic society.

Each person has the right to determine for himself how much of his complex beliefs, attitudes, and actions he chooses to disclose. To the individual, this data is more than just statistics. It is the data of judgment that can affect his schooling, employment possibilities, promotion, or role in the community. If all our actions are documented, including our mistakes, it would be difficult to close a page of one's life and start anew. It would be a tyranny over mind and destiny. It would crush privacy, civil liberties, and human dignity.

WE, THEREFORE, URGE the Congress of the United States to

  1. Enact legislation restricting the power of government to collect data on individuals;
  2. Prohibit by law the collection of any data on individuals that does not serve any lawful function;
  3. Require that already assembled files on individuals that do not conform to the above should be destroyed;
  4. Allow individuals to examine their personal files;
  5. Authorize a watchdog agency responsible to the Congress to oversee the protection of privacy, confidentiality, and individual access to governmental files on individuals.