In an auditorium in Louisville, Kentucky packed with young people sporting blood red “Stand With Rand” T-shirts, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) gave a presidential pitch aimed squarely at millennials, who he called “the Facebook Generation” in a promotional video aired before his big announcement.
Several times in the speech, he condemned to the surveillance conducted by the NSA, CIA and other government agencies on American citizens — which was largely secret until Edward Snowden leaked proof of the programs to the media.
“Warrantless searches of Americans’ phones and computer records are un-American and a threat to our civil liberties,” Paul said. “I say that your phone records are yours. I say the phone records of law-abiding citizens are none of their damn business. The president created this vast dragnet by executive order. And as president on day one, I will immediately end this unconstitutional surveillance. I believe we can have liberty and security and I will not compromise your liberty for a false sense of security, not now, not ever.”
The phone records program Paul described will expire in just a few months, and Congress must vote to renew them, end them or tweak them by June. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the House are pushing a measure to strip the government of much of its spying power, but it isn’t likely to go far under the current leadership.
Though Paul, a vocal critic of government surveillance, has introduced multiple bills to rein in the programs, momentum fizzled and none of the proposed reforms moved forward. After the 2014 midterms that swept some key members out of office, prospects for reform look bleaker than ever. It remains to be seen how much he’ll be willing to fight his colleagues on the issue this June, now that he is running for the White House.
Yet Paul is clearly making his enthusiasm for reigning in government spying a key part of his campaign. It’s even apparent in his campaign merchandise, which includes the NSA Spy Cam Blocker, a little piece of plastic with his logo on it to put over one’s laptop camera in case an agent feels the urge to tap into the network and surveil. This is an actual possibility.
One of the many videos played at Paul’s campaign launch focused on how he has taken this anti-surveillance message to college campuses across the country. “The enthusiasm kids have for the right to privacy is overwhelming,” he said in the video. “They know that what you do on your cell phone is your business.”
A young student introducing Paul, Lauren Bosler from the University of Kentucky, echoed some of these same themes, saying she supports Paul’s bid for president because he won’t “trample our civil liberties by monitoring our communication tools.”
Yet a recent study found that the so-called Facebook Generation is largely indifferent to such concerns. Only 20 percent of millennials surveyed said they worry all or most of the time about their digital privacy. More than a third said they don’t worry “at all.”
So will Paul’s dire warnings, like, “The Washington machine that gobbles up our freedoms and invades every nook and cranny of our lives must be stopped” resonate with a generation that shares so much voluntarily and shrugs at defending their civil liberties online?