With the sun beating down on them and only hours until they were transformed from students into official graduates, Stanford seniors shuffled onto the football field on Sunday for what was for many of them the biggest accomplishment of their entire lives. June 16, 2013 marked a day of celebration, reflection, nostalgia and bittersweet goodbyes. But it also marked the start of a journey into the “real world.” Yet, even for those pursuing higher education at graduate schools, medical schools and law schools, and especially for those taking the notorious gap year(s) to soul-search, there remains a looming question: how will I implement change in the world?
Undoubtedly, we live in an electronic era: we can send messages instantly to anyone around the world, pull up data or information about almost any subject and even video-chat from our phones. Simultaneously, while government agencies have monitored American citizens in direct breach of our Fourth Amendment for decades, the “electronic revolution” has allowed for easier interception than ever before. But how could that be?
It all began in the 1950s. In the wake of a “Red Scare” and during the McCarthy era, the FBI spied on countless American citizens under the fear-mongering sentiment that they could be “closet commies.” Such spying occurred without probable cause and was often based on sensational allegations. This surveillance was retrospectively deemed over-reactionary and, by the 1970s, the government’s unlawful searches were well known to Congress. In 1978, FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) was passed. No longer was “probable cause” the standard of whether or not a warrant could be issued to search and seize foreign agents’ communications and property; instead, the FBI needed only to prove that the “primary purpose” of surveillance was to gather foreign intelligence. Secret FISA court judges could issue these warrants and postpone ever telling the subjects of their breached privacy.
As a recent Stanford graduate myself, I have struggled to publicize the erosion of our constitutional rights and share my own story. My father, Brandon Mayfield, was wrongfully arrested in connection with the 2004 Madrid train bombings based on a faulty fingerprint match. Even though he hadn’t left the continent in over a decade and had no ties to Spain, an entire case was forged against him unbeknownst to my family. The FBI obtained secret warrants (from FISA courts) to spy on my family, bugged our house and made copies of our hard drives, all without probable cause or our knowledge. In fact, their powers were so monumental that, under provisions of the post-9/11 Patriot Act, only a “significant” purpose of their surveillance had to be to gather foreign intelligence, whereas before (under FISA) it had to be the “primary” purpose. Small change in wording, big change in practice.
My dad was released after two weeks when the Spanish authorities linked a true fingerprint match to another man. He was issued an apology and eventually won a settlement from the government to compensate for damages. Simultaneously, my family filed a suit against the government challenging sections of the Patriot Act that allowed for unlawful searches and seizure. We had a favorable ruling in the lower court but the decision was appealed and not upheld. Our family then petitioned to the Supreme Court but it would not hear the case.
As successive administrations slowly corrode the Fourth Amendment, they have reached a point of (nearly) complete disregard for it. Edward Snowden, the now infamous whistleblower who recently leaked to the public that the NSA has spied on American citizens almost indiscriminately, has confirmed my worst suspicions: Not only has the government erected legislation to expand its powers, but it may not even be acting in accordance with that legislation either, rendering their actions even more unjustifiable and injudicious. This lack of transparency and the ease with which our lives can be infiltrated is frightening and Orwellian in scope.
While much of the public has cowered in the face of these breaches and policies, I implore Stanford students (and graduates especially), who carry a great social responsibility, to confront these injustices. Until today, I have fought to spread my story and am currently working on a book about my family’s experience, which is only a microcosmic symptom of much greater legal violations. I share it not to garner sympathy but to evoke a response and put a face to the victims of massive, unchecked surveillance policies, to demonstrate that it’s not about “having nothing to hide” but about having everything to protect — our rights. Otherwise, they become meaningless and the Fourth Amendment is just a nice term we only pay lip service to.
Perhaps I can inspire my fellow Stanford students to be the change, to restore to America its constitutional integrity and hold it to the standards a respectable nation ought to be held to. As we move forward in our lives and apply the skills we have learned from Stanford, I hope to leave you, my fellow graduates, with a stirring message taken from The Guardian’s recent interview with Snowden: “The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America, of these disclosures, is that nothing will change. People will see in the media all these disclosures…but they won’t be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight and change things, to force their representatives to take a stand in their interests.”
I can only hope that my dream to see the winds of freedom blow is one day realized.
Sharia Mayfield ’13