Who Watches Washington? Five Perspectives On NSA Surveillance

Since former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden leaked the existence of several classified US surveillance programs to The Guardian and The Washington Post last spring, there’s been much speculation made over the extent and constitutional legality of these divulged programs. It seems one day we’re reading Orwell in high school literature class, and the next we’re facing the realities of mass government surveillance in a way that would make anyone a little paranoid. So the question is: How did we get here, and where are we going?

A little history…

Government surveillance wasn’t invented yesterday, but the scope and pervasiveness of modern-day U.S. surveillance is unprecedented in U.S. history. Many current programs were created to increase U.S. defense following 9/11. This includes warrantless phone tapping provided under the Patriot Act in 2001 (extended under the Obama administration in 2011), and the controversial PRISM program of 2007 that allows electronic data mining from such sources as Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Skype, and Apple, among others. Today, it’s reported that the NSA has been tracking more than 5 billion cell phone users worldwide, including U.S. citizens. However, early designs for mass surveillance systems are believed to have been in effect prior to the September 11 attacks.

There’s no shortage of opinions about the proper function of these programs or the protection of individuals’ privacy in and outside the U.S.. Below I’ve summarized five of the loudest voices in this debate.

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1. Codify Mass Surveillance

Since there is currently debate over whether NSA mass surveillance programs violate the Fourth Amendment Right against warrantless searches, the simple solution for supporters is to seek congressional approval for these surveillance activities. In late September, Senator Diana Feinstein (D-California) proposed a reform measure entitled the FISA Improvements Act, which would create a permanent loophole in existent legislation allowing for US intelligence agencies—not just the NSA in particular—to conduct warrantless phone and electronic surveillance on U.S. citizens.  The reasoning behind this appears just as simple: knowledge is power. Fewer legal complications would create a more proactive surveillance program geared towards identifying terrorist threats.

2. Tighten and Reduce Mass Surveillance

In direct competition with Feinstein’s proposal is another reform bill drafted by Senators Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont). Leahy has said that the U.S. government is unable to pinpoint any terrorist threats that have been avoided due to increased surveillance measures. Sensenbrenner may have been responsible for introducing the Patriot Act to the House, but his and Leahy’s proposed reforms do much to clarify the intention and scope that surveillance and data collection should have. Among other reforms, the USA Freedom Act creates stiffer requirements for surveillance agencies, effectively ending mass and warrantless data collection.

3. Who Cares Anyway? I’m not Hiding Anything!

It’s great that you’re not a terrorist cell. Really. The fact is, many Americans really don’t care whether the government is spying on them, and perhaps they have nothing to worry about. U.S. intelligence data mining relies on computer programs and algorithms to collect phone and electronic records. It seems pretty unlikely that anyone is actually sitting around reading all your emails. If it’s true that greater surveillance equals greater safety, then there are plenty of Americans willing to take one for the team. Of course, as Leahy has pointed out, there is no released evidence from the government assuring the effectiveness of any of these programs in preventing terrorist threats against the US.

4. We Are Big Brother Anyway

Okay, stay with me here. This is a bit of an elaboration on perspective No. 3 above. Most Americans today are constantly linked up, plugged in, and scouring our Facebooks and dozens of smart devices, recording our lives and posting our constant statuses. The personal is increasingly public, and the ability of U.S. intelligence to take advantage of that fact may speak less about the NSA’s surveillance measures and more about the huge paper trail we leave through the cyber-verse. Can we be to blame for making our information collection… well, easy? On the other hand, I’m not giving up my smartphone. No way, no how.

5. USA vs. the World

I would be ill-suited to account for every international opinion regarding U.S. surveillance, although the revelation that the NSA recorded German Chancellor Merkel’s phone calls was hardly met with positive reviews. The UN has begun to address privacy concerns with a November draft resolution reaffirming nations’ rights to privacy. The UN considers privacy a fundamental freedom, and the violation of privacy, a violation of human rights.

Join the discussion on this page: What do you think is the best role of surveillance programs in national security? How can we balance intelligence-gathering with citizen privacy?


Supporting documents for your perusal:

FISA Improvements Bill: http://www.intelligence.senate.gov/pdfs113th/113fisa_improvements.pdf

(^link broken, can be found here: http://templatelab.com/113-fisa-improvements/)

The USA Freedom Act: http://sensenbrenner.house.gov/uploadedfiles/usafreedomact.pdf

The UN draft resolution: http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/C.3/68/L.45/Rev.1

The Guardian’s ongoing coverage of the NSA leaks: http://www.theguardian.com/world/the-nsa-files

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Thoughts? Tweet us @litdarling.


View Comments (2)
  • How can we balance intelligence-gathering with citizen privacy? Great question Sasha girl! No way! No how! Not in this USA! You provide some top scenario tips regarding Big Brother surveillance in your provocative article but alas when government easing pays our debts and three quarters of the population have no idea what’s going on… I’d bet you 1 mil the gov knows the name of all who do know! I’m outa here. Now they’re watching me! Scary!!!

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