June 4, 2016
The Surveillance State
On September 11, 1999, the worst terrorist attack in the history of the United States struck the Twin Towers, with 3,000 people dead as a result. In response, the Bush administration initiated the War on Terror, a series of programs and military actions that were meant to repress terrorism. One result of this in the United States was a large increase in security. Americans became complacent to losing their freedom in exchange for security in the aftermath of the 9/11 disaster. Multiple laws were passed that allowed the government more and more power in the ways of exercising security at home. The complacent nature of Americans after 9/11 and terrorism paranoia allowed the government to pass many laws that directly infringed upon American’s rights, more specifically, the 4th Amendment’s right of privacy from seizures. This resulted in many Americans unknowingly losing their privacy in exchange for security. Thus, Snowden’s revelations in 2013 rocked many American’s world and justifiably created a large amount of fear. Mass surveillance is something that threatens the very foundation of our nation; should the American people become reliant on the government in this effect, it could open the doors for an Orwellian state of watchers and fear. However, at the same time, security must be ensured to protect against further terrorist attacks from both inside and outside our soil. While programs such as PRISM should be downscaled tremendously, many traditional investigative methods (such as the use of informants, tips from local communities, and targeted intelligence operations) should remain and even be upscaled. Currently, the federal government’s use of mass surveillance is in direct violation of the 4th Amendment and needs to be stopped immediately, before it can grow any further.
Some examples of laws that were passed include the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 Amendments Act of 2008, also called the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. This law updated and completely changed the FISA act of 1978. One such power it granted to the government is “Notwithstanding any other provision of law ... the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence may authorize jointly, for a period of up to 1 year from the effective date of the authorization, the [electronic] targeting of persons reasonably believed to be threats to the United States government…” Essentially, what this provision is doing is allowing government agencies with the signatures of two people to target individuals, and no warranty is necessary. Furthermore, the law allows for corporate spies by giving these government infiltrators a multitude of protections from justice. This would be used as the legal basis to start PRISM in 2008, the data collection program run by the NSA in which they collect data from 9 different major communication companies. Compacted, the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 allows for the government to search and seize information from businesses without prior authorization, and then they are allowed to act on this data gathered with two signatures. All of this can be done without a proper warrant.
The new surveillance programs have gone out of their way to abuse these new powers, with companies such as Google, Facebook, Skype, and many others coming under fire by the government in their search for data. Snowden’s estimation of the budget spent on data collection is around 25.3 billion dollars, as report by Martin Grandjean. Even more interestingly, it is estimated the NSA has collected over 3.6 million terabytes of data from its creation in 2007 to Snowden’s revelations in 2013. Compare that number to Google, who has around 1.2 million terabytes, and the average American with normally around one terabyte. These numbers are frankly terrifying; in the NSA’s almost infinite database, your emails, phone numbers, passwords, user accounts, are all stored there.
Businesses did not take the news well of hearing their involuntary hand in the programs, as were their customers worldwide. AT&T’s merger with Vodafone was cancelled and would be heavily scrutinized. Microsoft lost millions of customers around the world due to paranoia from foreigners of the NSA spying on them through American companies. IBM spent over one billion dollars constructing data centers offshore of the United States to assure customers that their data would not be spied on by the NSA. Mass surveillance programs at home lower our reputation abroad, hurting the economy in a subtle way by hindering their ability to work abroad.
The issue of mass surveillance comes down to, once again, an issue of privacy over security. PRISM and other programs recently instituted by the government greatly lower privacy, but do they raise security? According to a study conducted by the New America Foundation, mass surveillance program evidence was barely used in the 225 terrorism cases they analyzed, the courts preferring more traditional methods such as the use of informants, tips from local communities, and targeted intelligence operations. This is because these are much more focused than the NSA’s recording of all communications, making traditional methods far more reliable and accurate. Really, the NSA’s effectiveness is debatable, but the negative effect it has on the average American’s privacy is undeniable.
Compare PRISM and mass surveillance programs to the 4th Amendment. This amendment guarantees “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Notice how blatantly the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 ignore this basic doctrine, exercising “unreasonable searches and seizures” without warrants. The use of PRISM in data collection is not only morally irresponsible, it also discounts the American Constitution and opposes it directly.
The issue that is presented throughout American history (especially recently) is how to strike a pleasing balance between privacy and security. While maintaining our security should remain a priority, programs like PRISM are in absolute violation of the Constitution and molest the average American’s privacy. The best way to maintain our security would be to strengthen the traditional methods of investigating terrorism, as it is far more practical than bulk surveillance. If we as the American people all these policies to go unchallenged and unchecked, the Orwellian state will lower its deadly steel grip until it seizes us at the waist and refuses to let us go.