Paul was fighting government surveillance long before we knew the NSA was out of control.
If there was any question as to what kind of campaign Kentucky Senator Rand Paul would be running, look no further than his online shop. Paul is selling an "NSA Spy Cam Blocker" that slides over your webcam and a "Don't Drone Me, Bro" t-shirt.
Paul isn't really the libertarian he makes himself out to be: He opposes same sex marriage, abortion rights, and recreational marijuana legalization. But, on privacy and reining in government surveillance—two libertarian strong points—he's rock-solid.
It's not a recent development: Unlike most Republicans (and Democrats) Paul has been a staunch advocate of NSA reform ever since Snowden's initial leaks and was a privacy advocate even before it came to light that the NSA has tapped email, phone records, cell phone SIM cards, hard drives, and many other methods of communication and data storage.
He's got the record to back it up: Paul has actually sued the NSA over mass surveillance. He has objected to reauthorizing the bulk collection parts of the Patriot Act. He was actually the deciding vote against a toothless NSA reform bill last year, because he said it didn't go far enough to rein in the NSA. He talks about shooting down drones with shotguns, felony that it is.
"I'm just stuck in a digital age and all my information is out there"
Ted Cruz talks about reining in surveillance, but it only became a project for him after the Edward Snowden leaks. He's also leans on the crutch of saying surveillance should be limited to "bad guys," which is a vast oversimplification of the issue. Jeb Bush wants to maintain a surveillance state. Hillary Clinton is evasive on the issue, as are many other democrats.
Paul, on the other hand, has pledged to "immediately" end NSA bulk collection of Americans' data. Full stop.
A week before anyone knew who Snowden was, Paul was at Google telling the company's programmers to make sure Gmail didn't become perceived to mean "Government Mail."
"I am an advocate of privacy, and I would like to make a plea to those who are here, who are active, who are interested in the issue of privacy: Google, the entity, and you, as part of Google, need to be great advocates of privacy," Paul said.
"One of the reasons why I believe this is that there may come a day when people see Gmail and think that stands for Government Mail," he continued. "At the point when that is the public perception, you have lost a great war. You will then be at the mercy of people who say, 'Oh, we need privacy controls, we need regulation.' When people think that Google is the same as government, you will be lumped into that."
A few days before the initial PRISM leaks (and just after his visit to Google), I saw Paul speak at an Electronic Privacy Information Center dinner, where he was being honored as a "Champion of Freedom."
Even then, Paul was positioning himself as someone who wanted to rein in publicly known federal spying programs. Paul said the government needed better third-party records protection (he wanted to prevent the government from forcing companies to hand over data en masse); he also said that the FBI shouldn't be able to grab recent emails from providers without a warrant, a problem that seems almost quaint now that we know the extent of the NSA's programs.
"We say that once someone else has your records, you don't need a search warrant because you've given up your right to privacy," Paul said at the time. "I say, 'Hell no, I haven't, I'm just stuck in a digital age and all my information is out there.'"
Paul has positioned much of the country's privacy woes as being primarily a symptom of big government. In doing so, he's tried to court the Googles of the world, and Silicon Valley's big-name libertarians, such as Peter Thiel and Sean Parker, to support him. Paul has spoken very little about attempting to rein in private company use of consumer data. He appears to have little problem with companies tracking you all over the web, as long as it doesn't eventually end up in the hands of government.
"I don't want to have everyone think Google and Facebook are bad people," Paul said at the time. "I just was out there meeting with them and I'll tell you, particularly with the email thing—[the government] does not need a warrant to look at your email over six months old, that's the law of the land—but Facebook, eBay and Google, the word I get is they're going one step beyond … they're asking the government for search warrants and the government is complying with this."
His tone hasn't changed since then. He's steadfastly said that mass surveillance helps no one, and is a hugely invasive. His willingness to not take public companies to task for privacy breaches is a tick against him from a purist standpoint—but as far as presidential candidates go, he's easily the strongest anti Big Brother contender in recent memory. There are plenty of reasons not to like Paul, but if privacy is your issue, he's your man.